A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, right? Not necessarily. Certain names – especially when they’re attached to known bastions of excellence – gain special redolence. Take a whiff of these choice blooms: Wharton, Kennedy, Juilliard, Sorbonne. Things were certainly smelling rosy at USC last March during what has come to be known as “the Thornton moment” – the day the university’s top-flight music school underwent metamorphosis into the USC Flora L. Thornton School of Music, with a $25 million endowment from the noted Los Angeles arts patron.

What particularly delighted Thornton School officials was the language in which their patron couched her largess. Asked why she had made the princely in-vestment in USC’s music programs, the 85-year-old philanthropist smiled: “It’s nice to back a winner.”
It was an open acknowledgement of what many in Los Angeles and beyond already knew: that this school has too long been an unsung star in the musical firmament. “Mrs. Thornton didn’t say USC could become a winner,” explicates music dean Larry Livingston, relishing the nuances of meaning. “She said it’s great backing a winner.”
Eastern establishment schools like Juilliard and Eastman – wreathed in patrician dignity and what Livingston calls the “Hudson River bias” – can’t lay claim to such hard-earned laurels. Those buds possessed neither perfume nor foliage when they were first planted in the early 1900s. Their namings were acts of faith, not fulfillment.

Not so with the Thornton moment. “This isn’t the same kind of gesture of philanthropy,” Livingston explains. “Our greatness is already on record.”
And CD and cassette. Peruse the roster of Thornton School star alumni: world-famous mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne ’53, trumpet virtuoso and producer Herb Alpert ’54, San Francisco Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas ’67, MM ’76; top film composer James Horner ’74 and David Newman MM ’82; classical guitar virtuoso Christopher Parkening ’69; jazz guitarist Lee Ritenour ’72.
And then there are the names you might not recognize, like
Robert Thies ’93, who won first prize at the 1996 Prokofiev Piano Competition and has gone on to a successful concert career. Or Elisa Barston ’91, associate concert master of the St. Louis Symphony. Or Sheryl Staples ’91 and Cynthia Phelps ’78, associate concert master and principal violist, respectively, of the New York Philharmonic. Or composers Marco Beltrami ’93, whose music for the ABC movie David and Lisa was nominated for a 1999 Emmy, and Christophe Beck AS ’93, who took home an Emmy in 1998 for his “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” score. Or baritone Rodney Gilfry MM ’83, an L.A. Opera regular who recently sang the title role in the Zurich Opera’s Don Giovanni and was profiled on the cover of the September 5 Los Angeles Times magazine.
And let’s not forget 1-in-10 instrumentalists in the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Among its five most recent hires, L.A.’s premiere orchestra numbers four USC musicians: violinist SuLi Xue ’90, and cellists Ben Hong ’93, Jonathan Karoly ’97 and Serge Oskotsky ’99.
Nepotism has nothing to do with these skewed results, insists Livingston, himself a professor of conducting. Top symphonies choose their musicians based on sound alone. Hiring auditions actually take place behind a screen, ensuring that age, gender, hometown and, yes, alma mater don’t factor into the equation.

Quality has come not without a struggle. To really appreciate the alchemy of the Thornton moment, you need to understand what an uphill battle the music school has fought for more than a century. The West Coast address was handicap enough without the hardships of being “severely underendowed,” says director of communications and marketing Walter Zooi.
Miraculously, USC’s music school thrived, steadily translating material poverty into artistic richness. Listen to the violinist practicing in the stairwell of Ramo Hall, and you’ll hear phrases that wouldn’t sound amiss on the stage of Carnegie Hall. Walk by a choral class in Raubenheimer Hall’s single lecture room, and you’ll wonder if you’ve stumbled into high mass. Doze on the grass near the music complex and you might be startled awake by celestial blasts that have you scanning the clouds for Gabriel’s host.
“After 115 years, USC is one of the oldest music schools in the country, and recognized as the best music school west of the Mississippi,” says Livingston. “Yet our excellence and achievements have been undervalued. The Thornton moment is an opportunity to make a leap that is, in a way, overdue.”
That USC’s music programs are undervalued is easily demon-strated. One need look no farther than the 1997 U.S. News and World Report ratings: overall, USC tied for 12th place among the nation’s nearly 600 American music schools and conservatories.
Impressive. But insiders privately agree the school is really better than that, probably among the top five nationally. And in several areas – early music, composition and classical performance – it’s number 1, Livingston contends.
A dean may not be the most impartial judge, but there’s ample evidence to back his claims.
The New York Times has twice named associate professor Stephen P. Hartke a top young American composer; his music is performed worldwide.
Composition chair Morten Lauridsen ’66, MA ’68, DMA ’74 – whose recording Lux Aeterna received a Grammy nomination in 1998 – sells 150,000 choral scores a year. The Los Angeles Times recently dubbed him the “Choral Hit Man.”
Professor of keyboard studies Daniel Pollack has released the authoritative re-cording of Samuel Barber’s complete published solo piano music. A winner of the first International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, he was the first American pianist invited to perform in the People’s Republic of China.
Cellist Ronald Leonard ’65 retired this fall after 25 years as principal cellist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. At USC, he holds the Piatigorsky Professorhip of Violoncello.
Early music conductor, arranger and scholar James Tyler is one of the original members of the Early Music Consort of London, along with Christopher Hogwood.

Will perceptions be any different now that it’s the Thornton School – rather than plain USC – competing alongside Juilliard, Eastman, Peabody and Curtis?
You betcha, says Livingston.
“The Thornton School will immediately create the image on the street that the school must be somehow magically elevated,” says the dean, who for many years was music director of Boston’s New England Conservatory.
Named schools are rare, he explains. Having a name distinguishes a school from 95 percent of its cohorts. “Say you’re playing a piece of music, of which all but 10 notes are soft,” says Livingston, offering a musical metaphor. “The loud notes will get all the attention.”

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LARRY LIVINGSTON rehearses the USC Thornton Symphony for a fall concert. “The loud notes will get all the attention,” says the dean and conductor, referring to the éclat of the “Thornton moment.”

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