USC School of Music turns 125 years old

USC music students in 19th century photo.
USC music students in 19th century photo. Courtesy of USC

USC’s Thornton School of Music launched its 125th birthday party this week. KPCC’s Adolfo Guzman-Lopez says the institution has adapted and thrived in a changing music world.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: Los Angeles in 1884 was a small city of unpaved streets and fresh memories of lynch mob violence. USC Archivist Claude Zachary says the city also was home to a growing audience for the stirring emotions that only first-class musicians and singers could provide.

Claude Zachary: A lot of boosters were building music houses, auditoriums, funding symphony orchestra concerts. There was a real thirst for culture in those days.

Guzman-Lopez: The four-year-old University of Southern California established a music conservatory to satisfy that thirst. National recognition arrived 35 years later when the school of music hired globe-trotting pianist Olga Steeb, heard here in a 1922 recording.

[Felix Mendelssohn, "Scherzo in E Minor," Olga Steeb on piano, 1922]

Guzman-Lopez: An exodus of Europeans before and during World War II brought notable musicians to USC. They included atonal music pioneer Arnold Schoenberg and prolific composer Ingolf Dahl.

[Dahl music]

Guzman-Lopez: This is a 1959 performance at USC of Dahl’s Concerto for Saxophone and Winds.

That generation nurtured some of today’s top symphony performers. Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony, studied with Dahl at USC in the 1960s.

In response to revolutions in music during the last four decades, the music school has diversified, says Dean Rob Cutietta.

Rob Cutietta: You can hear that we have our studio jazz guitar area right here, let’s open this door. [jazz music]

Guzman-Lopez: He’s quick to add that proof the school hasn’t forgotten its roots is just a couple of doors down the corridor.

Cutietta: That’s our chamber orchestra. And our chamber orchestra rehearses simultaneously with our symphony orchestra and they’ll have a concert in about three weeks.

Guzman-Lopez: Teaching jazz isn’t controversial. Cutietta says the Thornton School did come in for criticism when it offered a specialization in scoring music for film and television.

And weeks ago, the institution took another logical step when it enrolled its first undergraduates in popular music performance. That program teaches songwriting, performance, and recording to aspiring rock, folk, and rap stars who hope to join other Grammy award–winning Thornton alumni and faculty.

Even though there seem to be fewer professional music jobs than in the past, Dean Cutietta maintains that music schools should graduate more musicians to increase supply.

Cutietta: If you have more trained musicians, they go into the community, they’ll start community orchestras, they’ll start choirs. You have people out there who are trained, they will actually increase what the participation is. It’s unlike any other business model.

Guzman-Lopez: Cutietta says the school wants to graduate first-rate musicians who are ready for careers in which they’ll have to mix teaching, rehearsals, and promoting their live performances.

[Bonnie Andrews warming up on mouthpiece]

Graduate student Bonnie Andrews warms up on her trumpet mouthpiece in a campus practice room. She hopes to perform in an orchestra or as a soloist. She’s prepared for a tough career.

Bonnie Andrews: Even students who get multiple degrees at universities in music and spend a lot of hours and time on it, very few, a small percentage get orchestral jobs or even make it. It’s pretty cutthroat, it’s pretty brutal.

Guzman-Lopez: Andrews’ iPod is loaded with Dvorak on the classical end and Incubus on the rock end. She says she’s hooked for life on music’s ability to express a spectrum of emotions. That fascination remains a genre-spanning constant in the 125-year history of USC’s Thornton School of Music.

[Antonin Dvorak, "Slavonic Dance," USC Thornton Symphony, 2004]

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