Highlights of the Fall 2023 Semester

By Danielle Jones & Evan Calbi

Looking back on an incredible Fall 2023 semester at USC Thornton.


Faculty premieres and performances, alumni achievement, student recognition, a celebratory Trojan Family Weekend with amazing guests stopping by campus — the Fall 2023 semester was one for the books. Take a look back at some of the many highlights.

An illustration of a Grammy Award.

USC Thornton alumni and faculty received over 20 nominations for the 66th Grammy Awards including arts leaders, composers, performers, members of jazz and orchestral ensembles as well as music industry professionals representing nominated artists and featured in nominated works.

First-time nominees included Strings faculty member Seth Parker Woods, celebrated choral group Tonality, founded by Alexander Lloyd Blake (DMA ‘19), and composer Leo Birenberg (GCRT ‘11).

Thornton was well represented in jazz categories as well. Billy Childs (‘79), Louis Cole (‘09) and Sara Gazarek (’04) were nominated along with faculty members Vince Mendoza, Luciana Souza and recently retired faculty member Russell Ferrante.

Music Industry alum Keaton Smith (’16), general manager of Top Dawg Entertainment, represents SZA who leads the field with nine nominations, while Ludwig Göransson (GCRT ’08) received multiple nominations, even competing against himself in one category.

The extensive accolades are just one reason why Billboard named USC Thornton a top music business school, and The Hollywood Reporter named Thornton one of the top institutions preparing the next generation of composers in film, TV, gaming and beyond.

Two people smiling in the auditorium of a classical music concert.
September 8th, 2023: Dean Jason King attends a USC Thornton Symphony concert at Bovard Auditorium featuring the work of Composition faculty member Veronika Krausas, also in attendance. (Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging Inc.)

This fall, USC Thornton welcomed Jason King as the new Dean of USC Thornton who was officially installed on Oct. 9 at USC’s Town & Gown by President Folt. King is a model for what music careers increasingly look like today, and he demonstrated his multi-hyphenated work this semester. He co-curated the Grammy Museum’s “Hip-Hop America: The Mixtape Exhibit,” and was featured in the documentary, Little Richard: I Am Everything. He contributed to NPR Music and was featured on its All Things Considered podcast. He led discussions on the USC campus with celebrated artists such as Tariq Trotter (Black Thought) of the Roots, Saweetie, and Göransson. He was also recently featured in Forbes where he explained how representation, allyship and diversity can operate in a university setting and why they’re important.

“The Thornton School must be poised to respond and to educate music creators on how to sustain themselves professionally and have established careers in the midst of such unpredictability,” King said at his installation ceremony. “There’s a huge opportunity for Thornton to lead and to proactively push us forward into a sustainable and robust future of music.”

Thornton invited parents, family and friends to campus for a Trojan Family Weekend in October that featured a slate of activities and celebrated artists in discussion. USC Thornton Dean Jason King led a conversation with award-winning composer, producer and songwriter Ludwig Göransson (GCRT ’08) as part of a new lecture series, “Music Beyond Boundaries.” They discussed the composer’s eclectic and genre-defying approach to music and answered questions from current students.

Guests also had the rare opportunity to attend the Popular Music Forum where faculty member Patrice Rushen led a discussion with David Paich, founder of the rock band Toto. The students surprised their guest of honor, Paich, with a live performance of some of his greatest hits.

A group of popular music students gather together and smile on stage.
Toto founder David Paich joins USC Thornton faculty member Patrice Rushen and the students of the popular music program on at Carson Soundstage after a special medley of some of the band’s greatest hits. (Photo by Willow Cai)

USC Thornton alumni Ella Collier (‘22) and Sam Vendig (‘17) debuted the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum’s newest anthem celebrating its 100-year anniversary on Oct. 21 at the USC-Utah football game. “We Came To Bring The Fire” is a true song for the ages as the duo performed it live with a custom arrangement by the USC Trojan Marching Band.

When it came to recording the song, there was no doubt about who to call. Songwriters Collier and Vendig worked with Sean Holt, vice dean of the Division of Contemporary Music at Thornton, who led the project and assembled a team of Thornton students, alumni and faculty including alumna Tehillah Alphonso (’20) who wrote a vocal arrangement for the song.

Among many more inspiring performances include Jasmin White (‘15), a USC Thornton Vocal Arts & Opera alum, won first prize at the Queen Sonja Singing Competition and second prize at the 2023 Queen Elisabeth Competition. Elise Solberg (’18) performed as the keyboardist in Chlöe Bailey’s band for NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert.

Paul Cornish (‘18) won third place in the 2023 Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz International Piano Competition. Close to home, Daniel Newman-Lessler (MM ’17, ’14) conducted 54 current students in the premiere of Unforgettable Sunrise, a 70-minute symphony by Jacob Rock and Rob Laufer.

A few alumni have been appointed to new positions, leading musicians in prestigious institutions such as Jenny Wong (MM ‘13, DMA ‘17), the newest chorus director of the San Francisco Symphony, and Stella Cho (’12, MM ’14, DMA ’22), the Colburn’s School newest cello instructor. Classical Guitar program alumna and Avery Fisher Grant Awardee Bokyung Byun (DMA ’20) has joined the University of North Texas College of Music as an assistant professor of guitar. Composer and multimedia artist Nina Shekhar (MM ’20) was appointed to the composition faculty of Mannes School of Music at The New School.

A photo collage of music students.

Photos by (left to right) Wallis Annenberg Center for Performing Arts, Thomas Leonard, American Pianists Association & Shervin Lainez.

Camae Ayewa performs with Irreversible Entanglements at USC Fisher Museum of Art on December 7th, 2023. (Photo by Dario Griffin)

USC Thornton displayed their engagement in the music industry through their involvement in several performances around the country, releasing new work and featuring on national networks.

Karen Parks, USC Thornton vocal arts & opera faculty member, joined the ensembles RedKoral Quartet and Kikuyu, as well as an orchestra composed of students and faculty from Brooklyn and Queens Colleges, in the world premiere performance of Wadada Leo Smith’s “America Transformed.”

Patrice Rushen composed a new work for distinguished composer and ethnomusicologist William Banfield’s five-year initiative, “Musical Landscapes in Color.” Inspired by civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., Rushen’s “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory” incorporates jazz, gospel and genre-defying rhythms.

USC Thornton Composition program faculty member Camae Ayewa, also known as Moor Mother, released the album, Protect Your Light, with jazz group Irreversible Entanglements on September 8 via Impulse! Records. The album draws inspiration from a multitude of jazz improvisational styles as well as the shared personal histories within the band.

Jeffrey Kahane, a USC Thornton Keyboard Studies faculty member and conductor laureate of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, conducted the world premiere of “Violin Concerto: Traces,” composed by Thornton Composition faculty member Nina Young and performed by violinist Jennifer Koh.

While studying at school, USC Thornton students are making their mark around the country as well. Simon Hwang, a double major in Jazz Studies at USC Thornton and Business Administration at USC Dornsife, was selected as a winner of the 2023 Yamaha Young Performing Artists (YYPA) Competition.

Rhian Bristol, a master’s student in the Popular Music Teaching and Learning program, ranked third among over 23,000 competitors in Audacy’s 2023 Opening Act competition. She performed a 20-minute set at Audacy’s 10th Annual We Can Survive concert at the Prudential Center on Oct. 14.

Oliviana Marie, a current composition program student, won two awards in the 2023 American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers (ASMAC) Student Competition. She earned second place in the Ray and Jon Charles Vocal Arranging category for “Wayfarin Stranger Hard Times” and third place in the Bill Conti Big Band Arranging category for “There Ain’t Enough Hours in the Day.” 

Photos (from left to right) courtesy of the artists. Photo of Quenton Blache [second from left] by Yu Hang Photography.

Arisa Makita, a euphonium player and Winds & Percussion graduate certificate student, won second prize in the Solo Euphonium Artist Division of the 50th International Tuba Euphonium Conference Competition.

Kaitlin Miller, a master’s student in the Strings department, won first prize in the Young Professional division of the 25th American Harp Society (AHS) National Competition. As the AHS Concert Artist until 2025, she will give recitals and masterclasses across the U.S. 

Quenton Blache, a master’s student in the Screen Scoring program, made his Carnegie Hall debut with the chamber orchestra Sphinx Virtuosi. The program opened with Blache’s New York premiere of “Habari Gani” and he played cello for Villa-Lobos’s “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5.”

Blache had also co-founded filmUSiC, a live-to-picture concert by Thornton and Cinematic Arts students, with Anya Lagman (‘23). Composition students created original scores to accompany short films made by animators. Musicians from Thornton’s Orchestras program performed the scores live as the films played onscreen during the concert, displaying the possibilities for interdisciplinary collaboration. 

“This project was meant to diversify the audiences of classical and orchestral music [as well as] foster an appreciation for collaborative projects that bridged a connection between different schools at USC,” Lagman said.

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Our Fall ’23 highlights represent just some of the many accomplishments we’ve celebrated this semester. Please read our archive of News items and Spotlights to learn more.

The USC Thornton Communications office welcomes news of accomplishments, awards and professional appointments from current students, alumni and faculty. We also welcome offers of student discounts, internships, or job opportunities for current students and alumni. Learn more on how to connect with Thornton. If you have any questions, please email us at music.news@usc.edu.

TAGS: Arts Leadership, Choral and Sacred Music, Classical Guitar, Composition, Early Music Performance, Jazz Studies, Keyboard Collaborative Arts, Keyboard Studies, Music Industry, Music Teaching and Learning, Music Technology, Musicology, Organ Studies, Popular Music, Screen Scoring, Strings, Studio Guitar, Vocal Arts and Opera, Winds and Percussion,

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