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Grases Debuts With USC Thornton Concert Choir

Grases Debuts With USC Thornton Concert Choir
Venezuelan native Cristian Grases started his musical studies in Caracas at age 11.

Venezuela is a fertile if unexpected ground for classical music. The emergence of Gustavo Dudamel at the helm of the Los Angeles Philharmonic has brought worldwide attention to the country’s superb music education programs.

On Friday, the USC Thornton Concert Choir will present its first concert under the direction of Venezuelan native Cristian Grases, the new assistant professor of choral music at the USC Thornton School of Music. An accomplished conductor, composer and scholar, Grases specializes in multicultural music, particularly Latin American choral music.

“Having Dudamel here in the city has brought a lot of attention to the education system in Venezuela,” Grases said. “There is a long line of great musicians, especially conductors. We have so many talented kids right now that the competitive level is very high.”

Grases started his musical studies in Caracas at age 11. After graduating from Simón Bolívar University in Venezuela, he earned his doctorate from the University of Miami. He has taught choral conducting and methods, music history, world music and general music at Simon Bolivar University, Central Washington University, the University of Miami and California State University, Los Angeles.

“In comparison with the orchestral system, we have a smaller choral movement in Venezuela that has needs and characteristics that are a little different from the orchestral world,” Grases said.

While leading a choral ensemble in Venezuela, he couldn’t find enough music for his choir. “It was difficult to find suitable music for the choir,” he said. “The normal repertoire didn’t fit the characteristics of the singers I had in front of me, so I had to create a lot of new repertoire for them and arrange a lot of music.”

In Miami, Grases formed a new choir, the Amazonia Vocal Ensemble, to continue to showcase the music of Latin America. Now that he is settled in Los Angeles, he sees his project growing into a partnership between the two cities.

“With the Latin American population in Los Angeles, there is no Latin American choir,” Grases said. “If we have a sister ensemble in Miami, the other Latin American focal point, then we can start creating something interesting. So I’d like to create an organization that would embrace these two ensembles.”

In addition to the new choir, Grases hopes to open the first center for Latin American choral music. His vision to turn Los Angeles into a center for Latin American choral music suits the ambitious agenda of USC Thornton’s choral program. Under the new leadership of Jo-Michael Scheibe, chair of the choral music program at USC Thornton and national president elect of the American Choral Directors’ Association, the school recently launched the first Bachelor of Arts program in choral music in the United States.

“Cristian Grases brings renewed energy to the school,” Scheibe said. “As a teacher, he is demanding, passionate and a fine scholar. He brings all of these attributes into his rehearsals and classroom.”

With so many projects already in the works, how has his first semester been so far? “Well, I’m alive,” Grases said with a laugh. “It has been an interesting first semester, and we are all quite exhausted, but we’re getting things done.”

The concert at Alfred Newman Recital Hall will begin Friday at 8 p.m. (admission is free.) It is a double bill featuring the USC Thornton Concert Choir and USC Thornton Chamber Singers. Under the direction of Grases, the choir will present masterworks from Germany, Italy, Hungary, Venezuela and Argentina.

The chamber singers, led by Scheibe, will present music of water and light, including works by Thomas Tallis and William Byrd.

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