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

During one session, the teacher tries to get Becky to create a harder, louder sound by moving her bow closer to the violin’s bridge, the small piece of wood that supports and stretches the strings over the body of the fiddle. Becky knows it would give her more power, but it also raises the danger of producing a “horrible, almost percussive sound.” The young violinist hesitates. The teacher moves in closer, and starts shouting:

Closer to the bridge! Louder!

“She gets really intense during lessons,” Becky says. “Teachers back in Portland were never like that.”

The intensity will only increase. Becky has signed up to perform Poème in a student recital program in a few weeks. “It’s my first solo recital performance at the school this year,” she says, trying to be nonchalant. “So it’s kind of a big deal.”

, Curtis will present about 130 concerts, most of them recitals like Becky Anderson and a pianist onstage in the intimate, wood-paneled Field Concert Hall, part of a thrice-a-week student recital schedule that’s free and open to the public. There are also community outreach concerts for school students, and fully staged operas at the Prince Music Theater and the Kimmel’s Perelman Theater, some of which are sold out before the brochures are even printed. 

The flagship for the Curtis brand is its orchestra, which this year will perform three concerts at Verizon Hall. Many years there’s a Carnegie Hall date, too. After last year’s Carnegie program, the New York Times noted that the young musicians were “energetic” and “highly polished,” but then, “you expect it of … Curtis.”

Backstage before the first concert at the Kimmel Center this fall, I wandered among the students as they warmed up. In their tuxedos and long dresses, they seemed like kids at a high-school prom — many looked more like it might be the junior prom.

When the hundred musicians took the stage, however, they grew up very quickly. “They’re not professionals,” Roberto Díaz told me later. “But we expect a lot of them. And when you think about the fact that the orchestra you heard has people in there who have only been in an orchestra for a month … They’re little kids. And they play — the smoke starts coming out.”

Actually, a number of older students have already started filling in as substitutes with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The close, if not to say slightly incestuous, links between the Orchestra and the school go back to the days of Leopold Stokowski and were fully exploited in the Eugene Ormandy era, when the maestro would regularly conduct the same program he was performing at the Academy of Music for Curtis’s Saturday-morning orchestra rehearsal. Most of the Orchestra’s first-chair players are Curtis instructors. In recent years, nearly 50 percent of the Philadelphia Orchestra has consisted of Curtis alumni.