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.