Curtis is playing to the world, and thriving

Posted: December 05, 2011

Second of a three-part series

In a dour economy, amid a cultural shift that has largely left classical music at the margins of culture, the Curtis Institute of Music has blossomed.

This fall the school opened a new Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates-designed nine-story building on Locust Street, doubling the size of the campus and giving students dorms and a roomy orchestra rehearsal space for the first time. New technology is woven throughout, so students can record their Beethoven and Schubert and take lessons via Internet 2 with masters in Miami or Berlin.

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A new degree program in guitar has been inaugurated, with several new courses and concentrations of study expected in coming seasons.

Geographic reach is extending. Long a draw to students from Asia, the conservatory has expanded the sights of its Curtis on Tour program to include Europe and South America in order to scout for talent - and donors. Ensembles from the school have fanned out across the globe, performing concerts, conducting master classes, and courting support.

"I visited the school, and it was love at first sight," said Baroness Nina von Maltzahn, a 2010 addition to the Curtis board who lives in Berlin and Uruguay. "I walked in there, and it was still of old America. Very civilized. And the dean then, he was really in love with the whole thing. That's the way he showed it to me. You could feel it." Now, Maltzahn and her foundation are helping to underwrite Curtis' new guitar department.

Maltzahn's involvement in the school is no accident. She was recruited by another Curtis board member, and she, in turn, is reaching out to friends in Germany and South America.

Curtis president Roberto Díaz is pursuing a kind of musical manifest destiny for the school, with tours of small ensembles in intimate venues touting the Curtis name. In one recent Berlin event, Curtis students performed chamber music with their professors and musicians from the Berlin Philharmonic.

"It was wonderful," said Maltzahn. "This is part of bringing the world together, which is such a mess."

In May, the entire Curtis orchestra will play the Dresden Music Festival in an ambitious project that includes a chamber music marathon and teaming the orchestra with Royston Muldoon, the choreographer of Simon Rattle's much-admired Rite of Spring project, for a similar collaboration surrounding Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra.

These explorations into the wider world - as well as the concerts Díaz performs as a soloist with orchestras and schools - create incalculable synergy for Curtis.

"As Roberto travels and performs, he develops relationships with orchestras and conductors, and in many instances those create opportunities for our students to perform," says Curtis executive vice president Elizabeth Warshawer. "When students are selected to go to Curtis on Tour, there are multiple benefits. They are meeting people all over the country and all over the world, and getting exposed to people means the possibility of being invited back with or without the Curtis ensemble."

Lots of opportunity

Talent scouts also come to the source, tipped by well-connected Curtis faculty.

"One of the nice things about Curtis is that they bring in a lot of companies and managers and agents to hear you," says Sarah Shafer, a vocal student who grew up in State College. "[Head of the vocal studies department and Curtis Opera Theatre] Mikael Eliasen knows a lot of people, and so he brings in a lot of people to hear his singers."

On average, Shafer says, she does one audition a week.

"It becomes normal, and it becomes not scary and nerve-racking like it was. I used to get so nervous it would stop my breathing."

Curtis' expansion of its recruitment target is a reflection of a shift in where talent can be found. As the United States has largely walked away from early instrumental lessons for children - along with the idea that classical music is an aspiration to be embraced by the many - other countries are running with it.

"Chile now has over 1,200 youth orchestras," says Díaz. "When I was growing up, there was not one. And Chile and Venezuela are not alone. You see it in Uruguay, and you see it in other parts of the world. Should these people know about Curtis? The answer is clear now."

Such concerts extend a banner for the school and its city.

"The people in the music world certainly have known of Curtis, but the grand public has not," said Maltzahn. "Well, at least now in Berlin, Dresden, Ischia [Italy], and Spain - yes. And other countries, I can tell you definitely in my contact with Argentina, they absolutely know about Curtis and are very interested.

"The way the teachers get involved with the students and play with them, it's very harmonious. What Gerry has given the city is fabulous."

Lenfest's challenge

"Gerry" is H.F. Lenfest, Curtis' board chairman since 2006, whose total largesse with wife Marguerite constitutes the biggest boost to Curtis since Mary Louise Curtis Bok's initial gifts to create the endowment shortly after the school's founding in 1924.

It was the Lenfests who created a challenge program that has so far resulted in eight of 11 faculty chairs receiving endowments. It was Lenfest who bought several properties a block east of the school's longtime home on Rittenhouse Square and gifted them for the expansion. It was the Lenfests who covered a substantial portion of the campaign for the new building, and whose enthusiastic lead lured funding from other major donors.

They have given a total of $63,660,170 to Curtis in endowment, annual giving, underwriting of faculty chairs and student fellowships, bricks and mortar - even marketing. If a challenge to support the remaining faculty chairs is met, their giving will total $68,160,170.

The Lenfests' involvement in Curtis - which is relatively recent - allowed Lenfest Hall to open on time, and without debt.

"I think we are incredibly fortunate to have so many loyal supporters," said Warshawer, "but certainly in Curtis' history we have had three angels - one was Mary Louise Curtis Bok Zimbalist, and the others are Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest. I don't think anybody would debate that they have had a tremendous impact on the school and its ability to move into the 21st century."

Curtis' recent successes seem all the more bold in contrast to the failure of its closest local cousin, the Philadelphia Orchestra. The orchestra declared bankruptcy in April, and a new musicians' contract contains deep cuts in compensation. Some musicians have taken jobs elsewhere. All this concerns Díaz, but he says its effect on Curtis - where some of the instrumental faculty are orchestra members - will be limited.

"I can tell you as an alum of the Philadelphia Orchestra, it's sad, it's very sad to see an institution that is so incredible have to deal with what they're having to deal with. I'm trying to be very optimistic. I am not really concerned as far as Curtis, per se. Many of us have had a long association with the school as students and faculty members and so forth. I cannot imagine that that would ever change.

"At the same time, not every principal player in the orchestra historically has taught at Curtis, so while there is a very obvious connection, this is not something we absolutely depend on. We bring in [faculty] from Chicago, from New York City, from Cleveland, so I think that we're very fortunate that we have the level of interest from people to teach at Curtis and that we're not necessarily local."

That Curtis was able to complete its entire building campaign during a time of such economic stress is enviable. But the creation of new facilities was discussed for decades, and did not become a reality without considerable internal debate.

A few Curtis traditionalists felt the mixture of dorms, practice rooms, and gracious gathering spaces would create an incentive for students to socialize rather than practice. Was Curtis creating the most efficacious atmosphere for serious study? If they no longer lived in apartments with pianos, would musicians find open practice rooms available when they needed them?

With Lenfest Hall in operation for only a few months, Curtis leaders are still sizing it up. And some students continue to live off campus, in nearby apartments (the youngest with parents or guardians). But Warshawer says the reasons for creating residential and dining facilities were compelling.

"It was becoming more and more expensive to live in the Rittenhouse Square area, and students were starting to live farther away. Forty percent of our students are international, and for them to come here with limited English and find an apartment and furnish it and figure out the currency and learn how to feed themselves - it is much easier for them if some of those things are taken care of while they adjust to the rigors of a Curtis education. We believe that language acquisition will be quicker [in a communal atmosphere], that better dining habits may lead to fewer health problems. From a safety perspective we think it's important. And for the culture of community, it's important."

While students certainly have found chance synergies in the common room of Curtis' converted mansions that the school continues to occupy, it is already obvious that Lenfest Hall's cafeteria down the street is the new town square - a major and undeniable change.

Few music schools are flame-keepers to the degree Curtis is. Its octogenarians and nonagenarians - pedagogues with important links to classical music's golden age - are worshiped. Every Wednesday afternoon, an old samovar appears in the common room, and the Curtis community drops everything for tea.

The samovar may be a relic, but it is pregnant with meaning. It was brought from Russia by onetime director Efrem Zimbalist - who married the widowed Mary Louise Curtis Bok in 1943 - and it reminds Curtis of its model: the St. Petersburg Conservatory, which, like Curtis, historically was small and geared toward building virtuosi.

In the airy new building, where students are more apt to chat over coffee, technology will be a big part of daily life. Teaching studios are equipped with recording and playback equipment. Video screens remind students of where they need to be and when. Curtis has hired an executive producer to train them in shooting and editing video, or in preparing electronic press kits. These are big developments at a school that missed out on earlier trends and diversifications in education (degrees in music engineering, music therapy).

Outside forces are hastening change. Deep cuts in compensation have already come to the orchestras of Philadelphia and Detroit, and storm clouds are gathering for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. The mighty Cleveland Orchestra, facing limited support in its hometown, is attempting to reposition itself as deserving of international support. Ticket demand for classical concerts is generally soft, and musical presenters are skittish.

"The reality is that a lot of our students are not going to waltz out of here into solo or orchestral careers, and we have an obligation to help them invent careers for what we know of the 21st century as it is evolving. This building," says Warshawer, motioning to Lenfest Hall, "is a laboratory for students."


 Tomorrow:


While Curtis increasingly attends to potential students and supporters abroad, 2009 graduate Stanford Thompson is cultivating talent at home. Instead of pursuing a performing career, the 24-year-old trumpeter has started a West Philadelphia music program for poor and at-risk children modeled on Venezuela's El Sistema.

Contact music critic Peter Dobrin

at pdobrin@phillynews.com or 215-854-5611. Read his blog at www.philly.com/artswatch.

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