These are the best of times, these are the worst of times – in the world of classical music, at least. Great artists once played and composed for princes; today they are princes.

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Luciano Pavarotti’s wealth – estimated at $100 million – puts him among the ranks of tycoons. When the Berlin Philharmonic’s legendary maestro Herbert von Karajan died in 1989, his estate was worth about $270 million – making him by far the richest man ever to hold a baton. Even from the grave, the late composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein pulls down $2 million a year.
On the other hand, orchestras and opera companies the world over are on the brink of ruin. Many ensemble musicians, if they’re lucky enough to be employed, barely eke out a living wage. Insiders predict that many of America’s 850 philharmonics will not survive far into the new century as full-time professional bands. All are beset by dire economic woes, declining ticket sales, superannuated audiences, perplexing urban demographics.
The worst of times, the best of times. The spring of hope, the winter of despair.

Despite thunderclouds on the horizon, many classical musicians remain cheery about the artis tic climate. “I’m very optimistic,” says associate professor of clarinet Yehuda Gilad. “I think classical music is rejuvenating; it’s not dying.”
USC’s dean of music Larry Livingston shares this confidence. “Classical music doesn’t need an army to protect it,” he reasons. “What will save the music is the sheer quality of it. ‘The sky is falling’ has been on people’s lips for a century as far as classical music is concerned. Yet it’s still here.”
Livingston’s and Gilad’s up-beat attitude is understandable in light of the history-making event that recently swept their school. In March 1999, Los Angeles philanthropist Flora L. Thornton donated $25 million to endow what is now the USCThornton School of Music. It is the largest gift ever presented to a music school.
The noted arts patron’s largess is, among other things, an endorsement of the unusual path that USC’s 115-year-old music school is taking – one that accepts the terms of the info-tainment age and is prepared to shape artists who can thrive in it, their integrity intact.
“We need to wrestle with this now – with the reality of musical culture in America in the 21st century,” says Livingston, who is also a professor of conducting. “We shouldn’t train people to go into a profession in 1950 when it’s 2000. We feel we owe our students those truths at age 18.”
By “truths,” Livingston doesn’t mean just the bad news – like the fact that windsurfing is more popular in America than classical music (in 1994, the sport attracted three times as much in corporate sponsorships as orchestras). But also the good news – the realization that there’s nothing wrong with playing Mozart and Sting side by side, Livingston says. That when Yo Yo Ma jams with Bobby McFerrin, it isn’t a cop-out, it’s a creative convergence. The new century is bursting with artistic possibilities for musicians with an open mind.
“The Thornton School is not only reckoning with music in pop culture,” says Livingston, “but reveling in it. We want to be in the culture, not cocooned from the culture.”
This so-called “non-isolationist view” accounts for the Thornton School’s greatest anomaly: the way music industry-geared programs in film scoring, recording arts and studio guitar can blithely cohabit with traditional conservatory staples like classical vocal and instrumental studies, opera, conducting, composition and theory.
“This is a place where old labels fall away, and music is passionately embraced in all its facets, keyed to the demands of music in the 21st century,” says composer and producer Quincy Jones, a longtime music school supporter. “Somehow, [USC has] successfully managed to remain totally out of the box.”
Unlike the nation’s premier conservatories or other university-based music schools, the Thornton School’s reputation isn’t pegged to a handful of specialties. “It excels in every area of Western music. Not every area it teaches, but every area – period,” says director of communications and marketing Walter Zooi, himself a composer and performer who plays the guitar, trumpet and Turkish saz (a long-necked lute).
“We can go toe-to-toe with the Eastman School, Juilliard and Curtis on a peda-gogical level in the classical programs,” says Zooi. “On the other hand, in music industry and jazz studies, we’re on a par with the Berklee College of Music. And no university program offers both in the same environment. The Eastman School, for example, has a recording program, but no film scoring.”
USC’s curriculum covers the full musical gamut, offering artist certificates and bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in every orchestral instrument, voice and opera, keyboard studies, composition, scoring for motion pictures and television, music pedagogy, recording arts, conducting, music industry, music history and literature, early music performance, choral and church music, jazz studies, music education, studio guitar and electronic music.
“What is quite remarkable about [the Thornton School] is that it combines the very highest level of traditional training in music with new programs responsive to the best of the music in popular culture,” says Paul Boylan, dean of music at the University of Michigan and a member of the team that accredits music schools nationally.
Some might mistake the Thornton School’s inclusive philosophy for a tacit abandonment of classical values. Livingston bridles at the suggestion.
“We’re not selling the house,” he insists. “We’re making the house bigger so classical and pop can be commingled. A music school should not be a nunnery.”
He likens the admixture to a crucible: where a violist from Dayton who dreams of playing Mahler sits next to a techie from Dallas who wants to record Madonna’s next CD.
“Agility is my goal for our students,” says Livingston. “Interestingly, agility is not only key to employment; it’s resonant in what musicians call ‘chops.’”
Livingston’s crucible produces burnished “crossover” artists like Jordan Charnofsky MM ’93, DMA ’97, whose gigs run from Jewish weddings with his klezmer band to Renaissance lute recitals in a chapel. Charnofsky is just as proficient as the guest artist performing Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s guitar concerto with a community orchestra, or stirring up Astor Piazzolla tangos in a coffee house.

The best of tImes indeed. Listeners have never had it so good. Hearing art music used to be a luxury of the elite, a phantasm that faded with the last chord. (And that chord probably didn’t sound so great. Beethoven’s favorite piano was probably worse than a contemporary upright, and before nylon came along, a string section was a temperamental thing).
Today, “serious” music is available to the masses – not always live, but in exquisite imitation and in incredible abundance. It’s actually hard to avoid classics. They sneak into film scores, telephone hold tapes, TV commercials for everything from perfume to pasta sauce. If the sunny soundtrack of that Wish-Bone salad dressing spot happens to catch your fancy, for $15 it’s yours on CD – interpreted by artists at the top of their game playing in a distortion-free, acoustically impeccable space. You can experience Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony again and again at the click of a remote, in digital perfection – at home, in the car or lying on the beach. Even Queen Victoria, Mendels-sohn’s royal patron, wasn’t so privileged.
Yet relatively few people are listening. According to a 1997 NEA study, 66 percent of American adults hadn’t heard (let alone bought) a single classical recording during the previous year. No wonder producers of the Grammy Awards quickly scroll through the names of classical winners between commercial breaks. Even free art music is in a free-fall. As of 1998, a scant 36 commercial radio stations were programming classical music in America, and even public radio stations – once champions of serious music – have begun to distance themselves from an art form that appeals to what the Los Angeles Times wryly called “a declining audience dominated by two colors – white and gray.”

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Vocal jazz major THENA DARE croons Gershwin and gospel tunes while music industry major JONATHAN KEYES monitors the console. Before coming to the Thornton School, the singer-songwriter spent three years in Chatanooga, Tenn., selling shoes by day and “gigging” by night. Keyes, too, dreams of a recording career. He’s hedging his bets, concentrating on the engineering and production end of the business and specializing in studio guitar. “If I can’t be a recording artist, I’ll settle for CEO of a major recording label,” he quips.
All Photography by Henry Blackham

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