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The Curtis Institute of Music doesn't cut a showy figure in its hometown. But on the world stage of classical music, its graduates have a presence far out of proportion with their little slip of a school, whose enrollment is a mere 165 students.
Curtis-trained instrumentalists account for 16 percent of principal chairs in the top 25 U.S. orchestras, and have populated the Berlin Philharmonic and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. More than 60 Curtis vocalists have sung with the Metropolitan Opera. Two New York Philharmonic music directors came out of Curtis. Graduates have won Pulitzer Prizes, Guggenheim Fellowships, Grammy and Tony Awards.
They often dominate major competitions, and it's not uncommon for a prestigious post to arrive ahead of the diploma, as happened in 1990 when Joshua Smith won the principal flute spot in the Cleveland Orchestra at age 20 - a year before he was scheduled to graduate.
Elite and tuition-free, Curtis established itself as a major source of classical talent soon after its founding in 1924 with a series of gifts from Mary Louise Curtis Bok of Philadelphia's Curtis Publishing fortune. Leonard Bernstein and Samuel Barber were early graduates.
What's striking about the school today is the extent to which, even amid great uncertainty in classical music, graduates are finding success both in traditional roles as orchestral players or soloists and, increasingly, in novel careers created with help from the school's developing sense of entrepreneurialism.
Winning, say, the Queen Elisabeth Competition, as violinist Ray Chen did in 2009, will always elicit a hero's welcome when you come home to one of Curtis' traditional Wednesday-afternoon teas in the school's very turn-of-the-century common room. Chen, 22, graduated in 2010, and, with a successful debut album for Sony under his belt and a second on the way, is pursuing a career not unlike those of his musical ancestors a century ago - playing concertos and recitals from Greensboro to the Gewandhaus in Leipzig.
Similarly, pianists Lang Lang and Yuja Wang, both recent Curtis graduates, have quickly established themselves as two of the biggest names in classical music.
But trajectories like these are increasingly rare for classical musicians. Curtis students - this year the entering class of aspiring Jessye Normans and Itzhak Perlmans was between ages 11 and 28 - peer over their conservatory walls at uncertain futures. So the school is preparing them not to depend on the kinds of paternalistic institutions - an orchestra, a major record label - that once could be counted on to look after them.
"More and more you see artists not necessarily waiting for a Deutsche Grammophon contract to come their way," says Curtis president Roberto Díaz. "They self-produce recordings, they market them themselves. Some of them start their own recording companies, they do their own PR just through how they manage themselves over the Internet. And I think you see more and more that musicians - the really successful ones - tend to have careers that are not just one-dimensional."
They also are stylistically different from what you might expect at one of the most conservative conservatories extant.
Edgar Meyer, a double-bass teacher at Curtis, appears on a just-released album with cellist Yo-Yo Ma called The Goat Rodeo Sessions. Recorded in James Taylor's recording-studio "barn" in Massachusetts, it's a partly improvised collection of classical-tinged bluegrass fiddling.
Less than a decade ago, a trio of young Curtis string graduates formed Time for Three, an energetic "classically trained garage band" that assembled mosaics of classical, country, Gypsy, and jazz.
Others are playing jazz clubs, launching and managing their own ensembles and concert series, and starting music programs in rough neighborhoods.
The spectacle of the Philadelphia Orchestra's bankruptcy appears to many as a sign that traditional career routes - in short, everything Curtis has been about - are endangered.
"It's not like just waiting until there's a harp opening. A lot of these things are not unfolding as they once were," says Margo Tatgenhorst Drakos, a 1999 Curtis graduate, who was once a cellist with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, but today is chief operating officer of Instant Encore, a classical tech company that provides streaming and electronic merchandising services to schools and professional ensembles.
Pace of change accelerates
Much of the evolution of Curtis, from 19th-century relic to something still very much Old World but more in tune with contemporary society, happened during the 20-year directorship of Gary Graffman, the pianist who first walked through the doors in 1936 at age 7. But the pace of change has accelerated under Díaz, a polished and savvy Chilean violist who took over the artistic direction of the school in 2006 after a decade in the principal's chair of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
A pilot program planned for next year will explore the idea of leadership in music - what it means to be a musical citizen and to give back to the community. The school is already coaching students in how to court funders and speak to audiences.
Díaz initiated an all-school theme for each year - a topic that each department tackles in its own way. Curtis has declared this an "Appassionato" year, exploring the school's past, future, and impact. He hopes to expand students' curiosity about the world beyond music.
"I can tell you, to walk into the common room on a Wednesday afternoon and hear a percussionist and a vocal student arguing about Freud, it's kind of an interesting thing," Díaz says of a recent season that had students learning all about Viennese culture. "You wonder to yourself, 'Is this a music school?' "
However defined, Curtis may be the nation's most elite institution of higher learning. Its acceptance rate was the lowest among U.S. colleges and universities surveyed recently by U.S. News & World Report: Just 4 percent of those who applied were accepted. (Harvard's rate is 7 percent, Yale's 8 percent, Princeton's and Brown's 9 percent.) New York's Juilliard School, perhaps the closest musical rival in prestige to Curtis, is five times larger (and includes drama and dance), with an acceptance rate between 7 and 8 percent.
"When you're younger, you hear about Curtis, and it's like, 'Oh Curtis, it's this impossible place to get into,' " said Patrick Kreeger, an organ student from Jacksonville, Fla., who did get in. "You hear the stats, and for some departments two people get in, or there is no opening."
The elite nature and free tuition set Curtis apart from other schools. Less tangible, but nonetheless real, is a musical philosophy that in some sense permeates teaching studios.
"I have had very interesting conversations with people that more routinely get to listen to Curtis students in a setting where they are mixed in with students from other schools, and for some reason they say they can always tell which ones are the ones that went to Curtis," says Díaz.
"I think maybe it's just an attitude toward the music, it's not a me-first attitude, but it's . . . I don't want to say what Brahms wrote is sacred, because it's a little bit - you don't want to go there - but there is a tremendous amount of respect taught for the art of the composer."
Students are hungry for these traditions.
"Because of its legacy and long history, there is a very consistent thread of musical concept and idealism here, and a lot of it has to do with pronunciation of phrases," said cellist Camden Shaw, a 2010 graduate. "And so there's a lot of talk about emphasis in a phrase. Curtis puts a lot of thought into how to vibrate, especially the string players, in a way that enhances the phrase without becoming an affectation with no reason, which is extremely common especially these days."
"Trying to figure out what the composer meant is much, much more difficult than just playing the notes," says violinist Joel Link, also a 2010 grad.
Reverence for the composer has been a given at a school whose piano faculty can debate whether it matters that they can trace a pedigree directly to Beethoven. Graffman and others studied with Isabelle Vengerova, once described by Graffman as an authoritarian teacher who "sailed around her studio like an over-stuffed battleship in search of the enemy, cannon loaded and ready to fire." Vengerova studied with Theodor Leschetizky, who studied with Carl Czerny, who studied with Beethoven. Longtime faculty member Claude Frank was an Artur Schnabel student, Schnabel a Leschetizky student.
What is new, perhaps, is that the measure of success is changing at Curtis, long considered a kind of trade school for a very specialized and narrow job market.
"Do you have to end up in a major symphony orchestra to be able to say 'I am successful'?", Díaz asks. "Is the only way to be successful as a singer to end up at the Met? We're starting to really look at that."
Drakos, the cellist-turned-tech entrepreneur, would like to see the pace of change pick up speed, and others in and outside Curtis echo her wish, but she says the school is "doing an amazing job of trying to figure out how to prepare students for change."
In her time at Curtis, she felt that "whether it was my perception or reality, you felt like you were letting people down by not going in a direction that wasn't traditional."
Of today's graduates, she says, "Curtis is going to have these people out there who are incredibly talented, but they are going to have to make the organizations they want to be a part of. They're going to have to create their own jobs."
Development of some of these nonmusical skills is already being encouraged. Curtis now builds community engagement into the curriculum, so graduates can go back home to Beijing, Sydney, or Shreveport to become ambassadors for an art form very much in need of renaissance.
The way Curtis crafts musical careers is an evolving work. But generally, Díaz says, it aims to send them into the world embodying a phrase used by Mstislav Rostropovich - humanitarian, cellist, conductor, and one-time Curtis faculty member.
"They should be world-class performers," says Díaz, "and 'soldiers of music.' "
As other arts organizations strain to merely maintain their mission in a tough economy, Curtis has expanded programs and built new, fully financed facilities. How did it manage to flourish during the economic downturn?
Contact Peter Dobrin at email@example.com or 215-854-5611. Read his blog at www.philly.com/artswatch.