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

That night’s conductor was JoAnn Falletta, who has an impressive array of recording and guest-conducting credentials and is currently music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic. She was vivid and impassioned on the podium as she led the students through Strauss’s Don Juan and then a Persian-influenced violin concerto by Behzad Ranjbaran that featured Díaz’s wife, whose performance dispelled any worries that nepotism was at work.

“This was my first time conducting at Curtis,” Falletta, a Juilliard grad, told me later. “The talent level is absolutely daunting, from the front to the back of the orchestra. That’s rare in any situation, even professional. Yes, they could use seasoning and some wisdom that comes with age. But for sheer talent, they play better than many professional orchestras.”

IT’S A COLD Monday night close to Christmas when Becky Anderson steps onstage at Curtis’s Field Concert Hall to play Poème. She has gone through her closet full of concert dresses and picked out a floor-length, sleeveless purple dress with a V-shaped, almost plunging neckline. “This music is so romantic,” she says, “that I wanted to choose something a little bit fancy.”

We’d last spoken several days before, when she’d just come back to her apartment, a few blocks from the school, after rehearsing with her chamber-music group for five hours. She had an hour before she needed to run off to another rehearsal. “And I don’t count rehearsal time as practice time, so I still have to come back and do three or four more hours by myself.” She’d let out a small sigh. “Another exciting Saturday night.”

Her preparations for the recital had gone well, she thought. Ida Kavafian had actually praised her at the last lesson, “and she doesn’t do that very often.” She was hoping to perform the piece for all of Kavafian’s students in what’s called “studio class”: “It’s where basically all of Ida’s students come and we perform for each other. So it’s like a mini-concert in front of all of your peers who play the same instrument as you and know exactly what you’re playing.”

“I think that’s one of the hardest situations that you can perform in,” Kavafian told me. “If you can perform there, then performing in the hall is not a problem.”

Now, the 19-year-old violinist appears beautiful and self-possessed as she strides out through curtained French doors onto the tiny stage. She’s the latest in a long list of musicians to perform in this intimate recital hall, which just may be one of Philadelphia’s most unheralded world-class locations. Zimbalist, Horszowski, Laredo — over the decades, a parade of musical legends has come through this place. Of course, there have also been hundreds of others, less gifted or less lucky, but still remarkable talents who trained at Curtis and went on to form the more anonymous human infrastructure that keeps the great edifice of classical music standing.