Your Tour Guide Through the ‘Halls of Thornton’

By Julie Riggott

USC Thornton alum Suraj Partha (BM ’19) hosts new Classical California KUSC radio program spotlighting Thornton concerts and the students, alumni and faculty behind them. “In the Halls of Thornton” launched on Oct. 29, and airs on Sundays from 7 to 9 p.m. for seven weeks.

An on-air host and content creator at Classical California KUSC, Suraj Partha (BM 2019) brings a fresh energy to the classical scene, drawing listeners in with a mix of homework and humor in his storytelling. A USC Thornton School of Music Jazz Studies alumnus who is a musician, actor, singer and writer for stage and screen, Partha feels that all art is an emotional experience. And he makes it his job to help audiences find their way in to music they may not be familiar or even comfortable with. 

“Classical music is just a different set of instruments,” he said. “You tell me what kind of music you like, and I can find you the classical music that is closest to that. That’s your window in. If you like the Foo Fighters, I’ll show you Bartók. If you want to experience a certain feeling, every feeling is represented in classical music.”

Partha brings that same amiability to his newest show: “In the Halls of Thornton.” Launched Oct. 29, the program will continue Sundays from 7 to 9 p.m. for seven weeks. In addition to broadcasts of USC Thornton concerts from recent years, Partha will talk with the students, recent alumni and USC faculty behind the performances and compositions. He sees his role as that of a tour guide at one of the places he calls home.

Smiling and laughing college-aged students walk together in a downtown environment.
Suraj Partha with former USC Thornton classmates and drummers [from left to right] Dominic Anzalone (BM ’22) and Luke Woodle (BM ’19, MM ’21) nearby the USC Tower in the spring of 2019. (Photo by Ben Gibbs)

“The title ‘In the Halls of Thornton’ conveys a double meaning,” he said. “One is the concert halls that this music is played in, whether that’s the recital halls or Bovard Auditorium, and then also the hallways, the classrooms, the interaction of students between each other and with the faculty — all the things that make the music school the music school and make USC USC. 

“I hope I convey to the audience not just things about the music, but also about the people who are involved, whether that’s the composer or the performers, and then try to give the listener a sense of what it’s like to be making music in Los Angeles.”

At Home in the Halls of Thornton

Partha’s own experience in the halls of Thornton included jazz studies and concerts as well as performing in two student orchestras for non-classical music majors. He said that the music building’s proximity to the cinema, theater and dance schools also makes for a special “conservatory within a university” experience.

“That is huge,” he said. “You just go to lunch with people, and it can change your life.”

“Also, I think USC is focused not only on the books and the music but also what you are going to do after school. Because so many of our faculty members are out in the community, those connections become very easy to make, but it also comes from a genuine teaching philosophy about wanting us to use music to make an impact.”

The Memphis, Tenn., native had been accepted into both the Jazz Studies and Classical departments but chose to study with his jazz idol, Grammy Award-winning drummer Peter Erskine, a professor emeritus at USC and former director of Drumset Studies at Thornton. 

Suraj Partha with Grammy Award-winning drummer Peter Erskine (left), a professor emeritus at USC and former director of Drumset Studies at Thornton, and his childhood drum set teacher, Andrew Hatfield. (Photo courtesy of Suraj Partha)

“For many students at Thornton, their musical heroes are their teachers,” Partha said. “That’s something that I had the opportunity to experience with my drumset teacher: Peter Erskine is a legend in the field. He’s someone whose method books I played when I was a kid. The same thing can be said for students who are studying classical guitar and their teacher is Pepe Romero, or composition and their professor is Frank Ticheli, who’s on our first program for ‘In the Halls of Thornton.’”

Partha recalls one of the formative moments in his undergraduate education. Erskine asked him to watch a monologue from Richard III and then “play it” on the drumset.

“That was this eye-opening moment for me. I was like, oh, theater, dance, music — these things are all connected.”

He took that lesson to heart for his senior recital. 

“The joke I tell people is, I didn’t want my dad to come to my senior recital and not get it. He’s a doctor and he doesn’t know that much about jazz, but I wanted him to understand what I had learned over four years,” Partha said. “So, I decided, OK, I’m going to write a one-act play with incidental music. So, after a scene, there’d be some music; after a monologue, there was music; and then all the way to the finale. And then to complete the recital, I had about 40 minutes of music that was based on the play. And so, anytime you heard something in the music, you could make a connection: maybe it’s based on this emotion or it’s based on this scene.” 

That idea — what Partha called “the power of telling stories about music” — comes into play every day he’s on-air or creating digital content. 

“I definitely did not expect to be on classical music radio; that was not on my bingo card after graduation. But it makes total sense because what you’re trying to do in that minute that you have before a piece of music is — you’re not trying to go into a musicological study, you’re not necessarily even talking about theory — but you’re just trying to give someone a window in to: what is this music going to make me feel, and why is it important, why does it matter? 

“And so, I think giving the audience a context, helping them find a window into the emotion that that piece of music is going to give them, is something that I took from that experience.”

April 20th, 2019: Suraj Partha performs Atman. Breathe., his original play with incidental music both written for his senior jazz recital at USC Thornton. “That was this eye-opening moment for me. I was like, oh, theater, dance, music — these things are all connected,” says Partha. (Photo courtesy of Suraj Partha)

A Different Kind of Energy

Partha started at Classical California KUSC — the No. 1 classical music radio network in the country — in 2021. After graduation, he had opted to take a little time off. But when the pandemic hit, that turned into more time than he had planned. 

“Nothing was happening, and I did what so many people did for fun,” he said. “I started a podcast and a newsletter called ‘Art in All its Forms,’ where I talked with former professors and friends in various artistic disciplines, trying to make connections not just for the audience, but honestly for myself, based on what happened at my senior recital.” 

Then, as chance would have it, his girlfriend’s mother was working at the radio station and shared the podcast with the staff. They asked him to apply to a new host training program.

Suraj Partha interviews former chair of Composition at USC Thornton and guest of the “In the Halls of Thornton” program, composer & conductor Frank Ticheli. (Photo courtesy of Suraj Partha)

“They were trying to figure out what the next generation of talent was going to be for the station,” Partha said. “And they were looking for a different kind of energy, a new perspective and people who aren’t necessarily in classical music proper.”

Partha fit the bill. The same musician who loves to listen to Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 on his way to work, and knows his way around music from Thomas Tallis to Florence Price, is also playing jazz gigs and working on an EP. He’s a passionate pop singer who sang “America the Beautiful” at the U.S. Open when he was 12 and has numerous videos on YouTube, including a jazzy cover of Coldplay’s “Adventure of a Lifetime” he recorded as an undergraduate with fellow Trojans on drums, piano and upright bass. An actor represented by a Top 10 talent agency, he has credits in Modern FamilyEnder’s Game and Master of None

Partha brings all of that creative energy to KUSC. Since 2021, he has been hosting all-night programs on Sundays and Mondays, and he will continue that schedule along with “In the Halls of Thornton.” Partha looks forward to giving a voice to student and recent alumni musicians who have consistently impressed him. He described some of his own former classmates and fellow Trojans as talented composers, performers who have won seats with major orchestras and Grammy-nominated engineers and arrangers.

Shows through Dec. 10 will feature a diverse mix of classics, like Mozart and Mahler, but also contemporary works by Kaija Saariaho and even Lennon/McCartney. Partha pointed out an unusual piece coming up on the Nov. 12 show: the Bach Harpsichord Concerto No. 1, arranged for two marimbas and performed by David Riccobono (MM ’19) (who is now assistant principal timpani/section percussion with the LA Phil) and Soojin Kang (GCRT ’20, MM ’22), with the Thornton Chamber Orchestra.

“I’ve heard that recording, and frankly, it’s ridiculous,” Partha said. “It’s just unbelievable that they could take a harpsichord piece and give it to two different people and have them play it together. As a percussionist, I have a particular enjoyment of that recording.”

Visit KUSC for a complete schedule.

TAGS: Composition, Jazz Studies, Popular Music, Strings, Winds and Percussion,

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