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

“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.