Crowd of U.S.C. Musicians Enlivens Annual Fund-Raising Dinner

Two weeks before Christmas, Los Angeles saw record-high temperatures in the mid-80s, which meant holiday party hosts had to work extra hard to generate that wintry spirit. Fortunately, holiday cheer is a built-in theme of U.S.C. Thornton School of Music’s annual Charles Dickens fund-raising dinner, which brings a cadre of student carolers to a pine-filled ballroom at the Millennium Biltmore.

Development and events coordinator Tiffany Yu oversaw the black-tie musical gala for about 350, which is an annual tradition that raises money for music scholarships. The night included Thornton student performers, including clarinetist Joseph Morris and soprano Marina Harris, as well as costumed carolers, members of the U.S.C. opera program, and instrumentalists. The musicians appeared from the ballroom’s balconies, stage, and throughout the floor as guests supped on three courses of organic winter greens, a sea bass and filet combo, and a dessert trio of Florentine fruit cup, mini cheesecake, and flourless chocolate cake. Contributing to the sense of holiday festivity were pine garlands strung with twinkle lights about the ballroom, as well as centerpieces decked with pine needles and cranberries. The night concluded with the opera and chamber orchestra performing a soaring medley of holiday tunes.

Since the event carries the same Christmas-y look and feel each year, Yu explained that the challenge is to keep it feeling fresh, yet consistent with tradition. “It was tough trying to creatively design the room in a way that hasn’t been done already,” she said. “The biggest variations are found in the creative design of the room, [like the] linen color choice and floral arrangements, who our honorees are, and table gifts. As for menu, it stays pretty standard from year to year, a duet of meat and fish, and we’ve had the event at the Biltmore for 24 years now. There are some aspects of the event that would make it not the Charles Dickens dinner if we took them out, like Dickensian costumed carolers. This year we inverted the colors on the invitations and added gold foiling to keep them looking fresh. However, as next year is our 25th anniversary, I’m definitely looking at ways to make the room look fresh and exciting.”

This year saw awards presented to honorees James Conlon, David Bohnett, and John Herklotz. Last year’s event honored outgoing U.S.C. president Steven Sample and wife Kathryn, and guests included Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver. “I think anytime you take over an event that has so much history, it’s a tough act to follow,” said Yu. “There’s already a certain level of expectation from guests who come year after year, so there was a lot of pressure to deliver the same caliber of event.”

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