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At USC's Thornton School of Music, moving way beyond the canon

The school, celebrating its 125th anniversary, is noted for its faculty, alumni and practical approach.

October 11, 2009|Laurie Winer

Visitors have been known to get lost at USC, a 226-acre scholastic oasis in the middle of a sprawling city. This year the university has added some helpful signposts, like the huge banners trumpeting the 125th anniversary of the Thornton School of Music -- although it might be easier to follow the sounds of a jazz guitar or angelic voices singing choral music to a grand piano.

Not an institution to miss a chance for a party or a concert, USC is in the midst of a 125-day celebration to honor its music school, whose instructors have included Jascha Heifetz, Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg and whose alumni include Herb Alpert, Michael Tilson Thomas, Marilyn Horne and Presidential Medal of the Arts recipient Morten Lauridsen, who is now a distinguished professor of composition at his alma mater. The school is in the process of a renovation and expansion, having recently added several degree programs, including one in popular music performance, the first of its kind.

But in a way the music school has been defining and redefining itself since it first opened only four years after the birth of the university.

"It used to be that a music school was a conservatory," says Rob Cutietta, the school's dean since 2002. "Music schools had one focus -- the canon. Now the school does what colleges should do: open the minds of students to opportunities they didn't even know existed."

USC was one of the first universities to offer a free-standing jazz studies department. Still, some people held on to the old ways. When USC created its program, Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television (in 1984), an irate member of the composition department threatened to resign. Today that program is practically a feeder to the industry, with graduates going on to compose music for such recent films as "Michael Clayton," "Hellboy II" and "3:10 to Yuma."

Cutietta positively radiates in the school's pragmatism. "I always laugh, inside, when a freshman tells me he knows exactly what he wants to do in his profession. We're here, basically, to blow that freshman's mind. We don't want to take the focused student away from his focus. But we want to broaden each one of them."

And then he adds one more thought: "We have a lack of guilt about commercialism. If someone thinks we lack integrity, he should tell Midori that."

He's referring to Midori Goto, who became an international star in 1986 at age 14 when she performed Leonard Bernstein's "Serenade" from memory at Tanglewood using three violins (in her passion, she broke two strings). Now she's one of the most famous violinists in the world, and, although she studied at Juilliard, she teaches at USC. One of her reasons: She wanted to work in a university setting with a wider range of interests and resources than a conservatory. (And probably the weather didn't hurt.)


A new model

"The great strength of the school is our diversity," Cutietta says of the school that has about 1,200 undergraduate and graduate students. "Here you have an opera singer studying next to a songwriter, and next to him is a woman who wants to be the next concertmaster of the L.A. Phil." The only thing connecting them is that they are all in the top 10% of the applicants.

"We are ruthless about that," says Cutietta, who has turned down the scions of the rich if they did not pass their auditions. "Who you have sitting next to you is just as important as who's teaching you. If the rest of the symphony cannot play at your level, you are sunk."

Derik Nelson was in his first year studying performing arts technology at the University of Michigan when he realized that "being stuck behind a computer" was not the correct career path. "I realized that if I wanted to be in the music industry, I needed to put my foot in the door of the music industry."

Once accepted at Thornton, he felt almost guilty about its pleasures. "I turn in songs instead of papers, I study the Beatles, and I play a gig with my band at the Troubadour, and all of that is recognized at the university." The school awarded him its Brian Wilson scholarship for songwriting in 2008.

Ara Guzelimian, dean at the Juilliard School in New York, worked for the L.A. Philharmonic as artistic administrator and producer of its radio broadcasts in the 1980s. He says he considers USC not a rival but "another institution central to the music life of the country."

(To be sure, there are other first-rate music schools at conservatories around the country, among them Berklee College of Music in Boston, Oberlin in Ohio, Rice in Houston and Indiana University.) He also sees the conservatory model of study in the 1960s and '70s as an era not worth mourning.

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