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

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.