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

“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.”