Last May, associate professor of music Bruce Brown noticed something peculiar. Gazing into the cap-and-gowned crowd at the Thornton School’s graduation ceremony, he saw a surprising number of
complete strangers. Brown surmised that the unfamiliar faces – more than a third of those present – belonged to recording arts, music industry or film scoring majors. Everyone else in the school passes through his courses in music history and literature.
Who are these new students? If you guess they’re mediocre instrumentalists hanging on the fringes of the profession, guess again. Students in these relatively new departments are creative, ambitious, tech-savvy future entertainment industry pros. Unlike classical performance majors (scholarship-dependent artists who may face a lifetime of austerity), these music biz-focused students pay their own way through USC, confident that “there are big rewards at the other end,” Brown says. “It’s just a very different sort of music student.”
The reputation of USC’s other top-flight professional schools – most notably cinema-television, engineering and business administration – is luring many such industry-minded music students to the University Park Campus.
When it comes to formal classical training, the Thornton School holds its own among the nation’s top conservatories and peer Seven Springs Association schools (the 11 elite music institutions based at major universities). Underlying the Thornton School, always, is what Gilad calls “the bible – the classical voice.”
But what ultimately sets the Thornton School apart from Curtis, Juilliard, Oberlin or the New England Conservatory is Los Angeles – “the undisputed entertainment capital of the world,” as Livingston puts it. “We’re in the cradle of the film, radio, television and recording industries.”
Sometimes the musical smorgasbord that characterizes the Thornton School alters destinies. Take advanced student Sébastien Koch, whom Livingston calls “one of the best pianists in our classical program.” One day, the promising French concert artist wandered into the Thornton School’s state-of-the-art digital lab and made what might, at a different institution, be considered a lamentable discovery. Koch realized that he likes composing New Age music. “He’s all the better at playing Schubert because he’s doing this,” the dean insists. “If this young man had gone to Juilliard, he would have had to come to this [genre] under his own steam. There wouldn’t have been an attitude or lab to support him.”
It isn’t only pop and classical, however, that blend harmoniously at USC. It’s theory and practice; performance and the professions; music and any far-flung field that takes one’s fancy.
Brown tells of one graduate, Keller Coker ’88, MM ’90, DMA ’96, an early music specialist who with classmate Fred Vogler ’88, MA ’90 created RCM, the successful independent classical record label that produced, among many other titles, USC composition professor Morten Lauridsen’s Grammy-nominated Lux Aeterna Or Anne Desler, a singer and doctoral student in musicology concentrating on Baroque opera. Desler began taking advanced courses in Italian literature, and the contact has shaped her artistry.
Opera enthusiasts can generally tell when a singer understands what she’s singing about, says Brown. So imagine the value of a singer understanding not just the language of opera but the culture in which it’s embedded.
“We’ve got students pursuing academic interests as strongly or almost as strongly as music,” Brown says. “It just doesn’t happen in many other places.”
At USC, it’s not unusual for music students to cross over into other fields, or vice versa. Look at John Ottman ’88, a cinema-television graduate whose dual interests have brought him success as both film editor and composer. His composing credits include The Cable Guy, Lake Placid and the upcoming X-Men, but on The Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil and Public Access he did double-duty as both editor and composer. He’s making his directorial debut with the upcoming Urban Legend 2.

The Worst of Times? During the 1990 World Cup, some 300 million viewers tuned in to hear three paunchy middle-aged men sing opera arias and Neapolitan love songs at the Baths of Caracalla. The concert recording subsequently sold 12 million copies. Tens of thousands more piled into Dodger Stadium and other sports arenas for sell-out reprises of the Three Tenors concert. Luciano Pavarotti’s protégé Andrea Bocelli followed suit, touring sports arenas and selling 10 million copies of his 1997 recording Romanza. In an even more mysterious musical awakening, the world fell in love-at-first-listen with a haunting work by an obscure living Polish composer whose name few could pronounce. In 1992, Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No.3
“Sorrowful Songs” reached No. 6 on the British pop charts, right behind an album by Paul McCartney.
But these are aberrations. It’s much more common for music directors to wring their hands as more and more concert seats go empty. Those listeners who do show up tend to resist anything new, scorning most art music composed after 1920. Reluctantly, maestros bow to reactionary tastes, trotting out the same tired war-horses while living composers scribble in obscurity.
On the other hand, obscurity never looked brighter. Digital technologies like scoring software, synthesizers, sound sampling and DVD discs have liberated composers from the tyranny of audience applause. If a concert gig isn’t forthcoming, for the first time in human history a composer can make ensemble music alone. She can program a computer to “perform” her complicated orchestrations, or play each part herself in layered tracks. She can independently engineer, produce and “burn” her own recordings; she can even narrowly distribute the music to colleagues and appreciative listeners over the Internet. Igor Stravinsky would have wept for joy.

Public concerts grew out of necessity, when musicians suddenly needed a way to supp ort themselves after churches and courts began to withdraw their patronage around 1800.
Today, ensemble musicians face a different sort of crisis. Governments, corporations and even audiences are withdrawing their patronage. Suddenly, 3,000-seat concert halls and 15,000-seat festival shells are too large. Expenses associated with concertizing have gone through the roof. Lodging, food and travel for an orchestra can run into hundreds of dollars a day per player. In New York, it costs $750 to move a grand piano from Steinway Hall a few yards across the street to Carnegie Hall, notes scholar and pianist Charles Rosen in “Classical Music in Twilight,” an article in the March 1998 Harper’s Magazine. The cost of advertising alone will eat half the ticket proceeds.
“Giving recitals was a precarious way of making a living in the early 19th century,” writes Rosen. “Today it can no longer guarantee a livelihood.”
So what’s a musically-inclined person to do – throw away the violin and study for a real estate license? Thoughtful cultural leaders don’t think so. “I don’t see it as a hopeless fight at all,” Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Esa-Pekka Salonen recently told the L.A. Times. “It just takes innovation and effort.”
Asked for concrete ideas to keep classical music alive,
faculty at the Thornton School offered several:
Do more than just the subscription concert – where listeners go, sit and passively receive what’s on the program,” suggests Bruce Brown, an expert on 18th-century opera, ballet and instrumental music. Do pre-concert lectures, outreach activities, tie performances to other events, such as museum exhibits. Resist the temptation to settle into a routine. “Don’t just keep repeating the notes,” he says, “but come back to what made it interesting in the first place – the culture the music comes from.” Don’t measure success by box office receipts – they’re becoming irrelevant, says Timothy Lindberg, music director of USC’s opera program. Ticket sales today cover only 15 and 30 percent, res-pectively, of an opera’s or orchestra’s costs.
Find new ways to pay the piper – “It’s not easy, but there is money that classical musicians are not tapping – some private, some foundation, some government. Quality and creative ideas tend to bear fruit,” says Peter Marsh, director of the Thornton School’s chamber music program, who spends a good deal of his time foraging for funds from public and private arts organizations.
Hit the road – not the road to Carnegie Hall but to South Central Los Angeles, to public schools where music is no longer in the curriculum, to churches and parks. It isn’t enough to perform in concert halls anymore, says dean Larry Livingston, who regularly conducts top professional symphonies and youth orchestras at home and abroad.
Cut out the gimmicks – “Stick to the truth and beauty of classical music. Build up through quality, and in the long run, the music will survive,” advises Yehuda Gilad, who besides teaching clarinet at USC and directing the Thornton Chamber Orchestra, is music director of professional philharmonics in Morristown, N.J. and Santa Fe, N.M.
Audience dedication is waning? So be it, Gilad says. “I told my board of directors back east: ‘I could care less whether you fill the hall.’ What’s wrong with a three-quarter-full auditorium?”
Audiences are leery of contemporary music? No problem. They will come back. Or they won’t. That’s not the point.
“As an orchestra director and music educator,” says Gilad, “I have a responsibility not to give the audience only what they think they want. My responsibility is 10 times more difficult. I believe my responsibility is to identify what I think – as a musician – is important in music, and then to say: ‘Here it is.’”
He likens a night at the concert to dinner at an experimental restaurant: an experience that excites and occasionally offends the senses. “Here’s the tray,” he says, extending an invisible platter to drive home the culinary metaphor. “If you like it, fine. If you don’t like it, look at the menu again. Don’t eat it next time. Or do eat it and get challenged a little.”
Neither sadist nor Pollyanna, Gilad knows the score: every year, he produces up to six “sensational clarinetists” – Thornton School graduates who will vie for only a handful of orchestra jobs against 80 to 100 freshly-minted clarinetists from other top schools. He offers this encouragement to his pupils: “Yes, there will be many people in competition with you, but everyone can carve their own niche in music. You have to create the new face of classical music.”
Just what that face will look like is anyone’s guess. Livingston predicts that the Internet will be a prominent feature, and that video streams will round out its profile. Superstars may start to wane, he adds, as the musical universe continues to expand. “We’re going to see a greater fractionating of taste in music,” Livingston augurs. “There is no more ‘it’ now. The reservoir is bigger, and the ability to access it is bigger. I see the spiral simply increasing.”
Which brings us back to agility. Musicians of the 21st century will need to be not only thick-skinned and driven (as musicians throughout the ages have been); they’ll also need to be entrepreneurial and quick to adapt. As Livingston puts it, agile.
Even with all the unknowns ahead, few at the Thornton School doubt it is a far, far better gig they’ll do than they have ever done before; it is a far, far better groove they go to than they have ever known.

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Seasoned studio guitarist NICK STOUBIS ’97 had years of training in jazz, blues and rock techniques before he ever held a bouzouki. But when his USC mentor nudged him to branch out, the Greek-American grad student turned to his heritage. Since then, Stoubis has played bouzouki in a jazz-hybrid quartet and in many freelance gigs. For his master’s recital, Stoubis will play a mix of traditional Greek music, jazz guitar, fusion and blues.
Pianist SUNG-HWA PARK wants to play. If that means mixing Brahms and Scriabin with Oscar Peterson and her own improvisations, that’s OK. The Korean-born doctoral student in classical keyboard studies has learned to play the synthesizer and to sequence her own compositions as part of her electro-acoustic media specialization. Yes, Park is pleased with the diversity of sounds she can now achieve, but the real pull of the synth is “that in today’s music world, it gives me more opportunities to play.”

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