If the goal for any college student is to leave with professional experience, Adam Karelin can claim that and then some.
As he prepares to graduate with his Bachelor of Music in composition with a minor in linguistics from the USC Thornton School of Music, his credits include some of the biggest names in music: Los Angeles Philharmonic, Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra, New World Symphony Fellows, Hear Now Music Festival, Aspen Music Festival. Since spring 2019, he has also served as the music director of the Student Symphony Orchestra of USC. Throw in the ASCAP Foundation Morton Gould Young Composer Award in 2019 and Brandon Mehrle Service Award in 2021, and Karelin has quite a resume to reflect on when he walks the stage at USC’s commencement this Friday.
Now, he can add one more accomplishment: valedictorian for the USC Class of 2022.
“Freshman me thought I knew the scope of possibility, but it was infinitely wider than I could have ever imagined,” Karelin said.
Music: A slow build for USC 2022 valedictorian
Born in Israel, Karelin immigrated to Los Angeles with his family when he was 5 years old. But his love of music began well before he ever stepped foot in the United States.
“My grandfather is a big lover of music, so he was always playing music for me in the car and at home. When I was a little kid in Israel, he would play for me on the piano,” Karelin said.
I’m a very big, vocal advocate for public music education because of what it did for folks like me, and all of my classmates.
Adam Karelin, USC 2022 valedictorian
Still, Karelin describes his love of music as a slow build, made up of a continual series of explorations. Apart from a small keyboard when he was a small child, Karelin said the first instrument he picked up to learn was a guitar in elementary school. He joined the string orchestra in middle school, then moved into wind instruments and, eventually, trombone. Coming from an immigrant family, Karelin gives a lot of credit to the music programs in the L.A. public school system.
“That was huge for me, because a new guitar is not something we would have been able to afford,” Karelin said. “I’m a very big, vocal advocate for public music education because of what it did for folks like me, and all of my classmates.”
USC 2022 valedictorian: Connecting with USC
In high school, Karelin found his way into composition — and both his teacher and his band director were USC alumni. He joined the composer fellowship program through the L.A. Philharmonic, which was offered to L.A. public school students. There, his two mentors also taught at USC.
“I was surrounded by musicians who were either teaching at USC or closely connected to it,” Karelin said. “So, I figured this was the place to be.”
Despite his focus on music composition, Karelin points out that he can still play the piano and the trombone.
“I don’t feel divorced from performance because I’m a conductor. But since I’ve put more of my efforts towards conducting and composition, you probably don’t want to hear me play any instruments at the moment,” Karelin said jokingly.
A COVID concerto
As with his fellow graduates in the Class of 2022, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted Karelin’s college career. At the time, he was studying abroad at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, Finland. He woke up from a nap to see his phone flooded with emails and alerts from both USC and the Sibelius Academy telling international students to book the first flight home. The alerts went out on a Thursday; by Sunday, Karelin was flying back to L.A. The rest of his study-abroad program continued for the semester, forcing Karelin to completely switch up his schedule to accommodate the 10-hour time difference between L.A. and Helsinki.
Afterward, he took the summer to “reevaluate what was going on in the world.” At the same time, the Student Symphony Orchestra of USC put on “The Carnival of Animals,” a two-week virtual music festival featuring different performances that were much more visual than students playing “Beethoven from their bedrooms.”
“I thought, we have this community of musicians, we have the students in the orchestra. There’s not a lot of music-making happening in the world in general, so what can we do?” Karelin said.
With the pandemic in mind, Karelin was inspired to write a piece for the USC Thornton Symphony’s New Music for Orchestra concert in fall 2021. Given the mask mandates at the time, Karelin wrote the piece intentionally without wind instruments.
“A fair number of people tuned in to the livestream, and it ended up being the most positive reception I’ve ever had for a piece,” he said. “Even though it wasn’t one of the more glamorous places I’ve performed, that was very meaningful to me and very memorable.”
Keeping Ukrainian culture alive
It was a highlight of a senior year that brought more than its share of hardship for Karelin. Though he was born in Israel, his family comes from a line of “Ukrainian Jews who bounced around the Soviet Union,” he said.
A lot of us either self-identify or have been called ‘Russian Jews,’ and I know my family was sort of thinking about it like, ‘Well, why do we call ourselves that?’
Adam Karelin, USC 2022 valedictorian
“A lot of ex-Soviet Jews have been sort of reckoning with their identity because a lot of us are Russian-speaking,” Karelin said. “A lot of us either self-identify or have been called ‘Russian Jews,’ and I know my family was sort of thinking about it like, ‘Well, why do we call ourselves that?’”
Karelin speaks Russian, but he is closest to his mother’s side from Ukraine. Their family still has relatives in Ukraine, specifically Kherson, the first city captured by Russian forces during the invasion earlier this year.
To say it’s been a difficult semester for Karelin would be an understatement, but as it has been throughout his life, music was his outlet.
“I got to see DakhaBrakha — a Ukrainian band and one of my favorite performing groups — perform at the Ace Hotel. And it’s amazing that they were able to come out here because it was unclear if they were going to be able to tour at all,” Karelin said.
“I try to cope in some ways that keep the culture alive.”
USC valedictorian looks ahead
In the fall, Karelin will begin his master’s degree studies in arts leadership, an interdisciplinary program at USC Thornton that he hopes to use to help those in the music and creative fields.
“I realized there are some business and administrative aspects to what we do that are crucial for facilitating the creative practice,” he said. “I always say that this creative practice doesn’t exist in a vacuum, so it’s crucial to understand what’s going on.”
Either way, Karelin plans to once again take advantage of the opportunities USC presents — as he has done since arriving on campus.
“The whole point of doing an undergraduate degree like this is to unlock those possibilities for yourself,” he said. “It’s a privilege to be here, and I want to use these resources as much as possible.”