Beautiful Music

Imagine a Rittenhouse Square mansion stuffed with the world’s top musical prodigies. Now imagine you’re one of them, trying to survive round-the-clock rehearsals, barking instructors and the relentless pursuit of perfection. For Becky Anderson and her fellow students, the race to be the best of the best defines life inside the Curtis Institute of Music

Students are no longer required to dress formally for the tea. Yet, amazingly, they still come, now balancing iPhones on their saucers. After I chat with Becky Anderson for a while about her interest in neuroscience, I am introduced to her friend, third-year student Ben Beilman, a slight, bespectacled and somewhat shy young violinist, except onstage. He debuted with the Philadelphia Orchestra in its 2009 summer season, was chosen by Astral Artists to receive career guidance and professional engagements, and has already been mentioned in the New Yorker as one of the standouts at a recent Marlboro Music festival. He’s 20.

Then I meet Christina Naughton, who’s been sipping her tea over near the big glass window that looks across Locust Street. She’s one of the Naughton twins, sisters from Wisconsin who play piano individually and as a duo, winning various competitions and being featured with orchestras around the country, including Philadelphia’s. The 21-year-olds are doing quite well, but they were overshadowed a bit last summer, when their classmate Haochen Zhang won the Van Cliburn piano competition a few days after turning 19.

“There are definitely some people here who are just so incredibly talented,” Becky tells me. “There are definitely younger students here where especially when I first came to Curtis, I was just blown away that someone that young could be playing something so well. There’s this amazement factor: ‘My God, they’re so young and they can do that.’”

ONE WENDESDAY, AFTER tea, I stop in to talk with Curtis’s president, Roberto Díaz, a handsome and charming 49-year-old Chilean with a boyish haircut and a youthful enthusiasm. Once a Curtis student, then a teacher, he’s the personification of what Mrs. Bok might have had in mind for her talented students. Díaz has played with four major American symphonies, most recently leading the viola section of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Meanwhile, he pursued a chamber-music and solo career on the side, taught, recorded, traveled the world — a varied, comfortable and energetic life that has left him with the grace and ease of an aristocrat. Sitting in his ornate, antique-filled office overlooking Rittenhouse Square, Díaz says, “I often think when I make a decision, ‘I wonder if Mrs. Bok would be okay with that?’”

Díaz took over Curtis in June 2006, replacing the retiring Gary Graffman, who’d come to the school as one of those amazingly talented kids at age seven and had a brilliant solo-piano career sidetracked by a hand injury. He returned to prominence by playing concertos written for left hand only, and came back to be president for two decades. Graffman still teaches top piano prospects. One of his more recent successes is Lang Lang, a rock star of the classical music world.

Curtis wasn’t broken when Graffman handed it over to Díaz, but there was a sense that it had become bogged down in its illustrious history — that it was a very fancy clock that had started to lose time.

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  • Monique

    Great article! To be savoured from beginning to end both for form and content, and the genuine, passionate conviction that it conveys.

  • Gary

    Nice throwaway line on George Bush. Since we all know he was born with a silver spoon. But what about Kennedy legacies? Biden legacies? Did they get into good schools on pure merit? Is that why they needed to cheat and plagiarize? Does that explain the failed bar exams? Maybe the author could stick to the point of his story next time rather than taking cheap shots to ingratiate himself to his presumed we-all-think-the-same-way audience?

  • Dave

    Gary! Amen amen amen! I thought the exact same thing, thanks for saying it better than I could have.

  • Robert

    Why does the writer feel obliged to take a cheap shot at George Bush? God knows he failed us less than the current prez. Other such legacies-Kennedy, Rockefeller, Biden, Bayh, Byrd, Clinton–have done poorly too.

  • Bem

    Does it make the writer feel good to take a shot a W like that OR, is that what’s required to get onto his circle’s party invite list? Whatever the purpose, it ruined the purpose of the article. Nice try though.

  • Roger

    If that’s so good for Curtis, why wouldn’t it be good for other schools, professions, military service, etc, which “want the best”?

  • Juan

    Moronic comments like this about GW are written into the DNA of today’s media. If we want to talk about the intellectual challenges of our Commanders-in-Chief, let’s start with the current one (Mr.Cinco de Cuatro, 57 states, etc.)

  • Gerard

    One reads such cheap shots against a former president in an article concerning a music school in Philadelphis and what can one say but… “Marchese.”

  • Anonymous

    I’m amazed by the stupidity of the comments. Who cares if your boy blunder George ‘W’ was mentioned, oh boy, cry me a river! You just ignored the 10 page article. Grow up boys!