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Pulling Out All the Stops

Pulling Out All the Stops
The USC Thornton Symphony will play at a concert Thursday night featuring cellist Ralph Kirshbaum.

On Thursday, the USC Thornton School of Music will present the first of several performances celebrating the inauguration of President C. L. Max Nikias.

Talented students, flagship ensembles, internationally recognized faculty artists and renowned alumni will help usher in a new era for the university.

“We are thrilled about our contribution to the inauguration,” said Robert Cutietta, dean of the USC Thornton School. “With orchestral premieres, a new song and amazing student, alumni and faculty performers, I don’t think there is another music school in the country that could offer as much.”

Larry Livingston, music director of the USC Thornton orchestras, began with the end in mind when creating the program for the inauguration concert.

“The celebration is a significant moment in the history of the university, and I started with the idea of closing the concert with ‘The Pines of Rome’ by Ottorino Respighi,” Livingston said. “The piece ends with a colossal and climactic finale which I felt was appropriate as a capstone announcing this presidential moment.”

In addition to Respighi’s finale and a grand processional, Wagner’s Overture to Die Meistersinger, the concert will feature new work by faculty composer Erica Muhl. The title of her piece, “Burn the Box,” comes from an address by Nikias earlier this year.

Speaking to an audience of doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows, Nikias quoted management expert Tom Peters on innovation: “The point is not to ‘push the envelope’ or ‘think outside the box.’ The point is to rip up the envelope and to burn the box.”

Muhl said: “I wanted the work to be a celebration for President Nikias, but also descriptive of this exciting new period in USC’s history.”

Reflecting on Peters’ quote and the university’s position as a leader among Pacific Rim institutions, Muhl found inspiration in USC’s international focus.

“It was clear that the musical materials for the work needed to cross boundaries and reach into other modes of thought,” Muhl writes in the notes to her piece. “The result is a careful blend of traditional and modern, of East and West.”

For concerts of this stature, the USC Thornton Symphony traditionally features an internationally recognized guest artist, and Livingston did not have to look far. “We invited one of our great faculty, cellist Ralph Kirshbaum, to perform,” Livingston said.

Kirshbaum, who holds the Gregor Piatigorsky Chair in Violoncello and is considered among “the highest echelon of today’s cellists,” according to the Los Angeles Times, will play Tchaikovsky’s “Variations on a Rococo Theme.”

Written by Tchaikovsky for a virtuoso cellist he admired, it is a fitting tribute to have a modern master like Kirshbaum perform the work to celebrate the inauguration of Nikias.

“I think it is a comment on how enthusiastic we are about his new launch as president,” Livingston said.

While the concert is by invitation only, it will be broadcast live on 91.5 FM Classical KUSC. The broadcast will feature interviews with Muhl and Kirshbaum.

For the inauguration ceremony on Friday, the focus will shift from the faculty to the talented students and alumni of the USC Thornton School. The USC Thornton Wind Ensemble, directed by faculty member Sharon Lavery, will perform during the ceremony, and soprano Sophie Winglind, a master’s student in vocal arts, will sing the national anthem. The featured guest artist of the ceremony is the renowned Calder Quartet. The quartet, including violinists Benjamin Jacobson ’01 and Andrew Bulbrook ’02, violist Jonathan Moerschel ’01 and cellist Eric Byers ’03, met as students at USC Thornton.

“We formed at USC in 1998 with Peter Marsh’s guidance, and we played in the Contemporary Music Ensemble with Don Crockett,” said Bulbrook, referring to two of USC Thornton’s longtime faculty. “I think our interest in new music came from the great faculty at the school.”

The Calder Quartet asked to commission a new work for the ceremony. With the help of Cutietta, they chose composer Andrew Norman ’02, a USC Thornton classmate. Recipient of the 2006 Rome Prize, Norman is a promising new voice in classical music. Last year, Gustavo Dudamel led the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a performance of Norman’s composition Gran Turismo.

“The Calder Quartet thought a new piece would be appropriate, so they called me,” Norman said. “We have been friends since our student days, and I was very flattered that they asked me to be involved in this project.”

The composition, “… toward sunrise and the prime of light …” takes its title from a line in Virgil’s Aeneid.

“Writing a piece for any specific occasion can place all sorts of creative pressures on a composer, but an inauguration like this one is especially tricky,” Norman said. “The scale of the venue and the audience is daunting, but perhaps the most difficult aspect of the task, the question I spent the most time pondering, is how one’s music could contribute to or be in dialogue with the overall message of the day. I tried to write a piece that, in its own musical way, deals with themes of growth, change, constancy, momentum and hope.”

In a display of the USC Thornton School’s musical diversity, the premieres written for the inauguration also will include a popular song. The groundbreaking popular music program offered a contest to its students to write a song for the ceremony, and sophomore Annie Dingwall won with her entry “Mosaic.”

“Thinking about USC and all of its many parts, I came up with the idea of a bunch of different pieces of glass or ceramic coming together,” Dingwall said. “The individual pieces make up this huge picture.”

Dingwall will perform her song at a California Club black-tie dinner on Oct. 15. A string quartet of USC Thornton students will accompany her with orchestration written by Zhou Tian, a DMA student in composition who has had great success in his native China. Last April, Tian’s piece The Grand Canal Symphonic Suite was performed at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing.

The performance at the California Club will end an impressive run of music in support of Nikias.

“I’m so thrilled and honored to be able to share in this,” Dingwall said. “It’s not every day that we get a new president.”

Cutietta added, “It’s not every university that gets a new president who would appreciate such a diversity of quality music.”

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