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 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?