USC Shines at the Grammys

The USC Thornton School of Music claims wins in six categories on music’s biggest night of the year.
By Jennifer Pons and Allison Engel
Thom Yorke of Radiohead rehearses with USC's Spirit of Troy band members before the Grammy Award broadcast.

Photo/Brett Padelford
USC Thornton School of Music faculty members and alumni were honored on music’s biggest night with Grammy awards in six categories for their outstanding contributions to some of last year’s top releases.

In addition, USC’s Spirit of Troy band contributed 13 drummers, 16 brass players and three tuba players to back up the British rock group Radiohead in a performance of the song “15 Steps” that was widely praised and commented upon by news outlets from Saudi Arabia to South Africa.

“Everyone knows that the Grammy Award is among the highest honors that can be bestowed upon a musician,” said Robert Cutietta, dean of the USC Thornton School. “For our faculty, alumni and board members to have received six of them is testimony to what our students already know. We couldn’t be more proud of these outstanding accomplishments.”

USC Thornton alumnus Fred Vogler ’88, MA ’90 won his second and third Grammys in the categories of best opera recording and best classical album, both as producer on Weill: Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, conducted by James Conlon, with Anthony Dean Griffey, Patti LuPone and Audra McDonald as soloists. USC Thornton winds and brass faculty members Gary Woodward, Judith Farmer and James Self performed as part of the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra ensemble on the album.

Alumna Gloria Cheng ’91 won her first Grammy in the category of best instrumental solo (without orchestra) for Piano Music of Salonen, Stucky and Lutoslawski.

Three-time Grammy winner Thomas Newman, a member of the Thornton Board of Advisers, took home two more one for best song written for motion picture, television or other media for the track “Down to Earth,” and best instrumental arrangement for “Define Dancing.” Both songs were featured in the movie Wall-E. The Pixar film, on which Newman was a composer, also was nominated for best score soundtrack album for motion picture, television or other visual media.

Thornton Board of Advisers member and alumnus James Newton Howard DMA ’69 took home his first Grammy for best score soundtrack album for motion picture, television or other media as composer of the film score for The Dark Knight.

Nominated for Grammys this year were a record six jazz faculty members: two-time Grammy winner Peter Erskine and Alan Pasqua of the Erskine Trio, Grammy winner Bob Mintzer and two-time Grammy winner Russell Ferrante of the Yellowjackets, Ndugu Chancler and three-time Grammy winner Vince Mendoza.

Thornton Board of Advisers members Grant Gershon ’85 and Gregg Field were nominated in the award categories of producer of the year, classical, and best contemporary jazz album, respectively.

Students Play for Millions Worldwide

Spirit of Troy student musicians were recruited to accompany Radiohead in its first appearance at the music awards through USC connections at the Grammy organization. Band director Arthur C. Bartner, drum instructor Tad Carpenter and independent arranger David Campbell worked out the arrangements for “15 Steps,” from the group’s In Rainbows CD, in three hours, Bartner told the Daily Trojan.

Students had only two weeks to rehearse the number. They had two dress rehearsals with Radiohead before the broadcast.

The critical reaction to the unusual pairing was uniformly positive. wrote: “On a night full of remarkable guest spots, Radiohead went above and beyond recruiting the USC Trojan Marching Band for a rousing performance.” Entertainment Weekly called the collaboration a masterpiece and praised the students “for their talent and their stylish choreography.”

The performance prompted widespread coverage, far beyond the expected outlets such as The Hollywood Reporter, Variety and American newspapers to include papers in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, South Africa and Ireland.

For the students, who were chosen based on seniority, ability and the instrument they played, performing for a worldwide audience of millions was unforgettable. As Bartner told the student paper, “One of my goals is to give these kids an experience of a lifetime. I think this is an experience they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.”