Beautiful Music

The race to be the best of the best defines life inside the Curtis Institute of 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.

When Becky Anderson first arrived in Philadelphia to study in the Mansion of the Prodigies, she was taken on a tour of her new school.

The Curtis Institute of Music occupies what used to be three impressive private mansions that cover half a block off the southeast edge of Rittenhouse Square. Now, with passages cut between two of the buildings, the school consists of a warren of classrooms and studios, offices and practice rooms. Throughout the halls are photos of illustrious Curtis Institute graduates.

There’s Samuel Barber, one of the great composers of the 20th century. Anna Moffo, the legendary soprano. The world-renowned pianist Peter Serkin. If those are names known only to classical music cognoscenti, there’s also Leonard Bernstein, who arrived at Curtis just before World War II and had such flair, talent, ability — was already so much Lenny — that an “anti-Bernstein club” formed among his jealous schoolmates, and one even plotted to kill him. Bernstein’s schoolmates included Lukas Foss and Jorge Bolet, who weren’t exactly unknowns.

All these people — they were actually here, Becky thought as she walked through Curtis that first day. She’d gone to a public high school in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, where her father is an electrical engineer and her mother’s a piano teacher. In many ways, she’d led the normal life of a high-school student: studying sciences and literature, running track.

But something had happened before she could even talk. One day, Becky’s mother was singing to her — “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Nan Anderson sang the first phrase and stopped, but her daughter, though she couldn’t yet say any of the words, picked up the melody and sang the rest of the song, note for note, in perfect pitch. Becky started to learn violin at five; at 12, she decided it was time to start practicing the violin three hours a day, mostly before she went to school in the morning. She studied with the concertmaster of the Oregon Symphony and traveled to summer music camps, including one where she was taught by Itzhak Perlman. When she made the decision to make music her life, Becky auditioned at Juilliard, the New England Conservatory, the Cleveland Institute, and Curtis. She was accepted at all of them.

Pretty, articulate, smart and charming, Becky Anderson is an extraordinary young woman in a number of ways, but especially so when she has a violin in her hands. And that fact, here in the Mansion of the Prodigies, makes her quite average.

The Curtis Institute of Music is the most selective college in America. While Harvard and Yale can be awfully choosy, opening their doors to only about eight percent of applicants, Curtis is twice as hard to get into. The scale is different, of course. The conservatory accepts only enough orchestral instrumentalists to fill out a standard symphony — about 100. In addition, there’s a contingent of pianists, some organists, a few harpsichord players, enough singers to stage full-scale operas, and a smattering of composers and conductors, like Lenny Bernstein. So total enrollment comes to 160, give or take. In any given year, there might be 40 vacancies. Last year, nearly 900 people applied for them.

Besides reputation, there’s one big inducement for that: At Curtis, if you can get in, tuition is free. It has been almost since the school’s founding in 1924, when Mary Louise Curtis Bok used a big chunk of her inheritance from her father Cyrus Curtis’s publishing company (Saturday Evening Post, Ladies’ Home Journal) to purchase those three formidable mansions — one built for the Drexels, another for the Crapps, the third for the Sibleys — and endow a little school whose sole aim was “to train exceptionally gifted young musicians.” Mrs. Bok’s legacy, an unprecedented $12.5 million in pre-Depression dollars now valued at $132 million, helps fund the tuition of each and every student.

 “You cannot pay to go to Curtis,” says Elin Frazier, a fine Philadelphia-based trumpeter who arrived here from Boston in 1960. “You cannot pay to go.” The point of her repetition is that you cannot buy, beg or steal your way in. Though it sometimes happens that the child of a famous musician attends, there are no spots kept open for legacies; the music world needs no George Dubyas. Neither is there a diversity program. “It’s all about how well they perform,” says admissions director Chris Hodges. “Curtis wants the best.”

And it gets them. If Curtis were a place where chefs or fashion designers of such caliber came to train, there would be a reality TV show about it. If the students played basketball at the level they sing and play fiddles and horns, the school would have an endorsement deal with Nike. “I’ve lived in Philly 20 years,” Hodges says. “And I’ve always thought this was one of the greatest unsung treasures in the city. If you were to ask the basic man on the street to name a great music school, they’re probably going to say Juilliard. And they are a great school. But if you were to ask a musician to name a great music school, they very well might say, ‘Curtis Institute.’”

 “It was always this place shrouded in mystery — ooh, Curtis,” Becky Anderson says. “So by my senior year in high school, I was wondering, should or shouldn’t I apply? The repertoire requirements to audition here are much more than for any of the other places I applied. Much, much more. When I came to audition, I was actually very relaxed, because I didn’t think I had a chance of getting in.”

When she enrolled, Becky got her de rigueur “Curtis Athletic Department” t-shirt, the joke obvious but enduring at a place where recreational opportunities consist of a ping-pong table in the basement. She also quickly realized that Curtis was proudly old-fashioned, and adhered to the earliest definition of conservatory: a place to raise and display plants. A hothouse.

Her new school was cloistered and clubby, but its inhabitants arrive from nearly every corner of the globe, and many will graduate to lives that define jet-setting. It is truly a hothouse for talent: Students are accepted at any age if they play well enough (the youngest currently is 12), and can remain until their teachers deem them ready to survive beyond Rittenhouse Square. The place steams with intense competition, yet the students are pampered and protected in ways that would make the most elite colleges blush. (Witness the stately Steinway grands delivered to new piano students’ apartments, theirs to use until graduation.) With its excellence and peculiarity, Curtis is what might happen if Children’s Hospital were run out of the Mütter Museum.

Take Wednesday afternoon tea, where I first meet Becky Anderson. Almost continuously since the school opened, someone has served the young musicians tea and cakes or cookies every Wednesday afternoon, in an elaborate, tapestry-hung reception room just inside the main entrance.

Until she died in 1970, Mrs. Bok was usually here herself, regal and genteel, pouring with gloved hands — “Sugar or milk?” In a way, she still presides, peering down with a benevolent half smile in a portrait done by one of her father’s many employees, a guy named Norman Rockwell. Such is the force of tradition here that tea is served by 95-year-old Eleanor Sokoloff, who arrived at Curtis nearly 80 years ago as a student and never left. Now in her seventh decade teaching piano, Mrs. Sokoloff is known for her exotic hats (a leopard-fur turban-like number on this particular Wednesday) and the fact that more than 75 of her former students have performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

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 Wednesday, after tea, I stop into 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.

“When I was at Curtis, there was this overwhelming, almost dark sense of tradition,” says flutist Joshua Smith, who dropped out short of graduation two decades ago, after winning the principal flute chair in the Cleveland Symphony at the age of 20. “It was almost scary. When you’re 17, that feeling can be exciting and daunting. But I didn’t have the sense that Curtis was in any way forward-thinking.”

Meanwhile, the school’s endowment wasn’t keeping up with expenses. Curtis’s skill at outside fund-raising, which had only become a necessity around 1980, never matched its reputation for prodigiousness. “I was on a fund-raising committee,” says one supporter. “And most of the people on the committee were either benefactors or trustees. Eighty-five percent of them live on Rittenhouse Square. We would sit there, and they’d give out lists of other people who lived on Rittenhouse Square, and they’d want to phone every one of them. And I just wanted to say, ‘There’s a world beyond 18th Street. A big world!’”

The power of stasis was so strong that the school’s longtime dean, Robert Fitzpatrick, forged a (sort of) joking aphorism: “We are the world’s greatest 19th-century school of music,” he would say. “And we are being slowly dragged into the 20th.”

Díaz’s appointment in ’06 happened to happily coincide with the emergence of Gerry Lenfest as an active and generous trustee. The cable billionaire, who has publicly expressed a devotion to giving away his fortune, stepped in with several important gifts and challenge grants, including $5 million toward an endowment transfusion that eventually raised $15 million, another $17 million in challenge grant money for endowed faculty chairs, and $30 million to help erect a new classroom, rehearsal and dormitory (the first in the school’s history) building a block east of the school.

 “The board at Curtis had always said they needed a place where they would have a hall where the full orchestra could practice, and dorms for students,” Lenfest told me. In fact, the board had been talking about new facilities at least since that first fund-raising drive more than 25 years ago. Lenfest says, “They approved it and said, ‘We should do it,’ but it just never happened.” With Lenfest as new board chairman, contractors broke ground on the $65 million building last spring at the former site of the Locust Club. Lenfest also paid for the land.

Díaz is collegial and polite about his predecessors. But he brought in a new dean and a chief operating officer, and worked through a strategic plan that, among other things, emphasizes taking ensembles of students, faculty and alumni on concert tours to widen the school’s visibility around the world. Would Mrs. Bok be okay with this?

“I think she would be very happy to see this school with forward momentum,” Díaz says. “And really staying relevant. The music industry is changing so much.” Under Díaz, Curtis has made a course titled “Foundations of Engagement” required for nearly all students. The object is to train young musicians in all the real-world skills — talking to audiences, teaching schoolkids, schmoozing with patrons — that are increasingly necessary to making a living in classical music.

“Maybe there’s something we can do so that classical music continues to be important and relevant and inspiring and everything it’s always been,” Díaz says. “But we have to be willing to do what any company has to do: reinvent itself. Not because you should, but because the world changes.”

Díaz is obviously serious about change. But having studied and taught at the school (his wife, violin soloist Elissa Lee Koljonen, was a student at Curtis for nine years, starting at the age of 12), the violist is well aware of the most important component of Curtis, the thing that hasn’t changed in 85 years: the unique interaction between a talented student and a master teacher. “What we really do here,” Díaz says, “is give lessons. What people come here for are the lessons.”

 Except for the tutorial system that still exists at Oxford and Cambridge, there is almost nothing like it in all of higher education. At Curtis, the overall student-to–teacher ratio is less than two to one — -ridiculously small compared to American colleges. But what its greatly gifted kids wait for is the one or two hours a week when that ratio drops to one to one.

“Yes!” shouts the teacher. “Fifty million times better!”

Becky Anderson has switched the way she is fingering a passage in Poème, Ernest Chausson’s late-19th-century lyrical and virtuosic piece for violin. It’s a bright fall afternoon, warm enough for open windows.

Ida Kavafian, a compact and vibrant woman wearing a black pin-striped pantsuit over a white turtleneck, lowers her own violin for a moment and leans over to look at the music on the stand.

“Where do you want the expression in this bar?” she asks Becky.

Becky plays the phrase.

Kavafian plays the phrase back to her. Slightly different. They go back and forth a few times. “In my head,” Becky finally says, “I have this going in a heavenly direction.”

“You have to save a lot of bow,” Kavafian warns.

Becky tucks in her fiddle and plays again. As she starts a phrase, she breathes in as if she’s going to sing it. As she plays, she seems to get taller. By the end of the phrase, she has risen onto tiptoe.

“Let’s put it this way,” Ida Kavafian says. “Either it’s got to be more powerful emotionally, or more in tune. Ideally, both.”

Curtis students learn to sing increasingly complicated music at sight, to listen to music they have never heard before and write it down as if they’re simply taking dictation. These days, they’re even taught how to converse at a cocktail reception or dinner party. But what’s happening in this room between Ida Kavafian and Becky Anderson is the essential element of this eccentric place, and it is in many ways ineffable.

It’s something like those guitar lessons you took when for a few months you wanted to be the next Bruce Springsteen. But not really — not nearly. In some ways, it’s like working on your short game with the club golf pro, or sweating through an intense session in the weight room with your personal trainer. Only that’s like comparing apples to gemstones. Yes, some are green and some are red, but …

“What I really wanted when I came to Curtis,” trumpeter Elin Frazier told me, “was to have a place that was cut off from the mundane world. To study with a master teacher and practice. It was very much the idea of one master teacher passing how to do it through the next generation.”

While the weight of tradition may hinder the classical music world’s nimbleness in responding to change, the student-teacher tradition is like the eternal golden braid, linking great musicians across oceans and generations. When China-born Haochen Zhang, the Van Cliburn contest winner, takes a lesson with Gary Graffman, he’s getting not just Graffman, but also Graffman’s childhood teacher, the redoubtable Madame Isabelle Vengerova, as well as his later teachers, Rudolf Serkin and Vladimir Horowitz. One of Curtis’s first piano teachers, Josef Hofmann, had studied with Anton Rubinstein, who had studied with the legendary soloist and pedagogue Carl Czerny. Czerny had studied with Beethoven.

Ida Kavafian trained at Juilliard under Oscar Shumsky, a Philadelphia violinist who first performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra before he was 10, and who attended Curtis. “I can tell you that Oscar Shumsky permeates every single thing I do in music,” she says, “not just specifically, though there is some of that, but conceptually and philosophically. He is by far the single biggest musical influence on my life.”

For her next lesson with Kavafian, Becky brings back the Chausson Poème and a pianist to accompany her. That goes well, and in the lesson after that, she plays alone again. At the end of the lesson, Kavafian tells her, “It’s just too pretty.”

“She’s completely right,” Becky says. “It’s an incredibly beautiful piece, but there are dark parts of it. I need to have a better sound — not prettier, but the best sound, and sometimes that could actually sound extremely unhealthy. Sometimes I need to scratch a little bit. I’ve been practicing trying to get it very smooth. But it’s not just pretty; it’s trying to express something much deeper than that. Ida keeps pushing to make me keep thinking — not just make it beautiful.”

During one session, the teacher tries to get Becky to create a harder, louder sound by moving her bow closer to the violin’s bridge, the small piece of wood that supports and stretches the strings over the body of the fiddle. Becky knows it would give her more power, but it also raises the danger of producing a “horrible, almost percussive sound.” The young violinist hesitates. The teacher moves in closer, and starts shouting:

Closer to the bridge! Louder!

“She gets really intense during lessons,” Becky says. “Teachers back in Portland were never like that.”

The intensity will only increase. Becky has signed up to perform Poème in a student recital program in a few weeks. “It’s my first solo recital performance at the school this year,” she says, trying to be nonchalant. “So it’s kind of a big deal.”

This school year, Curtis will present about 130 concerts, most of them recitals like Becky Anderson and a pianist onstage in the intimate, wood-paneled Field Concert Hall, part of a thrice-a-week student recital schedule that’s free and open to the public. There are also community outreach concerts for school students, and fully staged operas at the Prince Music Theater and the Kimmel’s Perelman Theater, some of which are sold out before the brochures are even printed. 

The flagship for the Curtis brand is its orchestra, which this year will perform three concerts at Verizon Hall. Many years there’s a Carnegie Hall date, too. After last year’s Carnegie program, the New York Times noted that the young musicians were “energetic” and “highly polished,” but then, “you expect it of … Curtis.”

Backstage before the first concert at the Kimmel Center this fall, I wandered among the students as they warmed up. In their tuxedos and long dresses, they seemed like kids at a high-school prom — many looked more like it might be the junior prom.

When the hundred musicians took the stage, however, they grew up very quickly. “They’re not professionals,” Roberto Díaz told me later. “But we expect a lot of them. And when you think about the fact that the orchestra you heard has people in there who have only been in an orchestra for a month … They’re little kids. And they play — the smoke starts coming out.”

Actually, a number of older students have already started filling in as substitutes with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The close, if not to say slightly incestuous, links between the Orchestra and the school go back to the days of Leopold Stokowski and were fully exploited in the Eugene Ormandy era, when the maestro would regularly conduct the same program he was performing at the Academy of Music for Curtis’s Saturday-morning orchestra rehearsal. Most of the Orchestra’s first-chair players are Curtis instructors. In recent years, nearly 50 percent of the Philadelphia Orchestra has consisted of Curtis alumni.

That night’s conductor was JoAnn Falletta, who has an impressive array of recording and guest-conducting credentials and is currently music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic. She was vivid and impassioned on the podium as she led the students through Strauss’s Don Juan and then a Persian-influenced violin concerto by Behzad Ranjbaran that featured Díaz’s wife, whose performance dispelled any worries that nepotism was at work.

“This was my first time conducting at Curtis,” Falletta, a Juilliard grad, told me later. “The talent level is absolutely daunting, from the front to the back of the orchestra. That’s rare in any situation, even professional. Yes, they could use seasoning and some wisdom that comes with age. But for sheer talent, they play better than many professional orchestras.”

It’s a cold Monday night close to Christmas when Becky Anderson steps onstage at Curtis’s Field Concert Hall to play Poème. She has gone through her closet full of concert dresses and picked out a floor-length, sleeveless purple dress with a V-shaped, almost plunging neckline. “This music is so romantic,” she says, “that I wanted to choose something a little bit fancy.”

We’d last spoken several days before, when she’d just come back to her apartment, a few blocks from the school, after rehearsing with her chamber-music group for five hours. She had an hour before she needed to run off to another rehearsal. “And I don’t count rehearsal time as practice time, so I still have to come back and do three or four more hours by myself.” She’d let out a small sigh. “Another exciting Saturday night.”

Her preparations for the recital had gone well, she thought. Ida Kavafian had actually praised her at the last lesson, “and she doesn’t do that very often.” She was hoping to perform the piece for all of Kavafian’s students in what’s called “studio class”: “It’s where basically all of Ida’s students come and we perform for each other. So it’s like a mini-concert in front of all of your peers who play the same instrument as you and know exactly what you’re playing.”

“I think that’s one of the hardest situations that you can perform in,” Kavafian told me. “If you can perform there, then performing in the hall is not a problem.”

Now, the 19-year-old violinist appears beautiful and self-possessed as she strides out through curtained French doors onto the tiny stage. She’s the latest in a long list of musicians to perform in this intimate recital hall, which just may be one of Philadelphia’s most unheralded world-class locations. Zimbalist, Horszowski, Laredo — over the decades, a parade of musical legends has come through this place. Of course, there have also been hundreds of others, less gifted or less lucky, but still remarkable talents who trained at Curtis and went on to form the more anonymous human infrastructure that keeps the great edifice of classical music standing.

But the bright stars keep emerging. In recent years, violinist Hilary Hahn and pianist Lang Lang gave their graduation recitals in this hall. “They were very well attended, standing room only, I think,” says admissions director Chris Hodges. “It was mostly people who knew it would be the last chance to hear these artists for free for quite some time.”

Becky Anderson keeps herself from thinking of the history that surrounds her as the crowd stills, waiting to hear her. “All that matters for me when I walk out there is the music,” she’ll tell me later. She stands with a far-off gaze as her piano accompanist begins the piece alone. For the initial few minutes of Poème, the piano and violin trade solo passages; Becky is a bit tentative on her first entrance. (“The opening part is possibly one of the scariest things I’ve ever played,” she says.)

But on her second entrance, she digs her bow into the strings, begins to shift her weight from foot to foot like a boxer. The violin climbs through a series of trills to a high lyrical passage, and the music opens like a blooming flower. Becky Anderson has managed to take Poème in a heavenly direction, and for the rest of the piece her playing is impassioned and strong, and she is rewarded at the end with loud applause and a curtain call.

Becky Anderson has a few years and a bunch of performances left here, at the Mansion of the Prodigies. And it’s a good bet that they may be the last chance to hear her play for free.     

Clockwise from above, a music theory chalkboard exercise; hanging out between classes; a student orchestra rehearsal at the Kimmel.

The Curtis Institute of Music is the most selective college in America. While Harvard and Yale can be awfully choosy, opening their doors to eight percent of their applicants, Curtis is twice as hard to get into.

Clockwise from right, a view of Curtis from the Square; the famous Wednesday tea; founder Mary Louise Curtis Bok, as rendered by Norman Rockwell; Ida Kavafian teaches the finer points of the violin. Opposite, Becky Anderson just before her recital.