Curtis Institute @ 100: Spinning The Pandemic Into A High-Tech Leap

The Curtis Institute of Music, celebrating its centennial, has educated generations of major musicians, including Leonard Bernstein and Samuel Barber. (Robert Moskow Photo)

PHILADELPHIA — It was pretty quick footwork for a school on the cusp of its 100th birthday. When the pandemic hit in early 2020, the Curtis Institute of Music closed its doors and sent its students home, but the school also pivoted swiftly to use new technology, allowing students to learn remotely.

“We bought their airfare home,” said Patricia Johnson, vice president of communications and public affairs. “And we sent green screens and recording equipment all over the world. They were taught how to record themselves, and we stitched together an online concert.”

Much of the success in using new technology has been due to the savvy leadership of Vince Ford, senior vice president of digital strategy and innovation. Ford’s team recorded all 200 student performances, including those at Verizon Hall and all of the opera productions.

Ford is now knee-deep into the next big Curtis project: “We are doing a new thing with the Dover Quartet in which you can play along as a member of the quartet,” he said. “You walk into a space. There is an installation with four chairs. You can sit in one of the chairs with your instrument and play along. When you do that, the exhibit will adapt itself to you. The piece under production is Dvořák’s American Quartet, so it is not for beginning string players, but it is not the most demanding, either. Each instrument gets a nice moment in it.” The AI tool will follow a player’s lead “in terms of tempo and such,” he added. The Dvořák play-along project is scheduled to launch in May 2025.

“Students have demanded this,” Ford said. “When students leave here, their first time in front of a camera should not be when they get a job. They should have been in front of a camera here a lot. It’s a safe place. Something can go wrong and they can learn from it. We coach them on how to communicate — to learn how to read a script, to talk about themselves and the music. I would like them to be the most sophisticated musicians in the business when they leave here.”

Philadelphia Orchestra music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin led the Curtis Symphony Orchestra and Curtis Opera Theatre at Verizon Hall in music of Richard Strauss on Oct. 22. (Matt Genders)

The Viano Quartet’s PORTRAITS recording was proposed as a project while they were at Curtis. “Their CD was the first student-led project,” Ford said, “and it has been a successful promotional tool for them.”

Under Ford’s purview, Curtis created a multi-media installation called Immersive Scheherazade, which offered a 360-degree experience with Rimsky-Korsakov’s famous piece. Amid imagery projected on the walls and the ceiling, listeners could put on headphones and hear what it is like from a particular position in the orchestra. “We thought that the audience might stay for a bit and then move on,” Ford said. “But they loved it and no one left.” The same thing happened when Curtis took the installation to the University of California at Davis. “It mesmerized people,” Ford said.

“Learn by doing,” the motto of the Curtis Institute of Music, is supported with a vigorous mix of courses, private lessons, and concertizing for exceptionally gifted youth from around the world. For the past 100 years, the high level of training at Curtis has yielded impressive results as reflected in its illustrious list of graduates, including Samuel Barber, Gian Carlo Menotti, and Leonard Bernstein.

Leopold Stokowski, with help from assistant conductor Thaddeus Rich, rehearsed the Curtis Orchestra in the Institute’s Common Room in 1925, during his tenure as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. (Curtis handout)

Founded in 1924 by Mary Louise Curtis Bok, pianist, organist, and heiress of the Curtis Publishing Company, the Institute was established as a school for the most promising music students. It was housed in a mansion replete with ornate, old-world paneling. Bok worked with Leopold Stokowski and Josef Hofmann to find top-tier teachers.

Three years later, she gave the school an endowment that made it tuition-free, and it was in other ways progressive: The first Curtis class had male and female students, as well as six Black students. The school’s first registrar and dean were women, and the early faculty included many female instructors.

Today, the student body of Curtis fluctuates between 150 and 160; only about 4 percent of applicants are accepted, and the school offers a 2-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio. The school houses an instrument collection from which the students can borrow. And in 2020, Curtis launched the Young Alumni Fund to support graduates who are trying to purchase instruments or recording equipment, and to undertake concert projects.

Micah Gleason opened the Oct. 22 concert with Strauss’ ‘Dance of the Seven Veils.’ (Matt Genders)

To kick off the school’s 2023-24 season Oct. 22, Philadelphia Orchestra music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin led the Curtis Symphony Orchestra and Curtis Opera Theatre at Verizon Hall in music of Richard Strauss. The playing, of exceptionally high caliber, included excerpts from Ariadne auf Naxos and Salome, as well as An Alpine Symphony.

The operatic portion started with the quintet “Die Dame gibt mit trüben Sinn” from Ariadne au Naxos, in which members of a commedia dell’arte troupe try to raise the spirits of heartbroken Ariadne. The male quartet (Hongrui Ren, Jackson Allen, Erik Tofte, and Morgan-Andrew King) delightfully enticed soprano Maya Mor Mitrani, as Zerbinetta, to stand on a chair and fall into their arms. From that horizontal position, she finished off the number with elan.

From Der Rosenkavalier, another superb ensemble (Nathan Schludecker, Kyle Kreucher, and Landry Allen) sang from Act II, with Juliette Tacchino and Judy Zhuo delivering the “Presentation of the Rose,” which was especially effective with delicate woodwinds and a charming celesta. Katie Trigg as Octavian, Emily Damasco as the Marschallin, and Sarah Fleiss as Sophie formed a convincing trio in “Hab mir’s gelobt.”

In the concert’s second half, Nézet-Séguin put on a comprehensive display of passion and precision in An Alpine Symphony, which describes the drama of ascending a mountain and viewing its panoramic grandeur. Low, dark tones from the brass set the stage for the journey. Forest scenes emerged with strings and woodwinds evoking streams and birds. The orchestra excelled in creating a huge storm, with two timpani and the percussion battery cranking a wind machine and wailing on a bass drum and thunder sheet. The audience responded with a storm of applause and cheers. Nézet-Séguin waded into the orchestra and gave recognition to each section. You could practically feel the warm vibe and enthusiastic connection that he has with the students.

Opening the concert with the “Dance of the Seven Veils” from Salome, 27-year-old conducting phenom Micah Gleason, who is studying with Nézet-Séguin, elicited a mesmerizing sound. The rapport between Gleason and her colleagues energized a terrific performance with the intoxicating, sinewy melodic lines holding sway. All that was needed was a dancer.

Members of the Curtis Symphony Orchestra performing at Verizon Hall on Oct. 22. (Matt Genders)

An ambitious student recital at the school’s Field Concert Hall on Oct. 23 featured Xenakis’ Keren, in which a solo trombone emitted big forte blasts, extremely high and low tones, and fluttering sounds that pushed the music-making to the outer edges. Works by Debussy, Poulenc, Paganini, and Saint-Saëns rounded out the program. Kudos to Diogo Fernandes, Adrian Zaragoza, Romain-Olivier Gray, Cristian Makhuli, and I-Hao Cheng for strutting their stuff.

For those who cannot attend Curtis Institute concerts in person, the Friday recitals are livestreamed on Facebook and YouTube. One might also catch performances by various ensembles, soloists, and faculty as part of Curtis on Tour program. Upcoming tours include a Winds and Strings tour, led by Osmo Vänskä, to Brevard, Philadelphia, New York, West Palm Beach, Wichita Falls, and Corpus Christi, starting Nov. 28, and a String Sextet tour of North America in sprint 2024, with dates and locations TBD.