Making Conservatories Less Conservative

The Curtis Institute of Music, founded in 1924, claims to have created more noteworthy musicians than any other conservatory. The list of alumni certainly does include important composers: Barber, Bernstein, Lukas Foss, Ned Rorem, and a more recent graduate, Daron Hagen.

Curtis is truly unique in some ways. For example, it provides full-tuition scholarships to every student, and its enrollment is small. In addition to the studios for composition, conducting and keyboard instruments, it retains only as many students as are needed to form a full orchestra and an opera department. Students are generally quite young, and they stay at the school anywhere from two years to a decade. As an added plus, keyboard, conducting and composition students are all provided with grand pianos for their personal use.

Curtis has a rigorous curriculum that is strictly controlled. The dean, Bob Fitzpatrick, informed me that the school decides with whom a composition student will study privately, and the student will rarely rotate to another. The faculty is comprised of musicians who are established in their fields, and do not consider teaching to be their primary occupation. For this reason students must take a train from Philadelphia to New York City – for all of the composition professors, Richard Danielpour, David Loeb, and Ned Rorem, reside there. A composer and Curtis alumna, Jennifer Higdon, also teaches at the school and is an actual presence at the conservatory. Among her courses is a 20th Century music class that is required for all students.

Composition student, David Ludwig assured me that Curtis is less staid and conservative than it appears, and he even called the school “a composer’s paradise.” The Dean had commissioned Ludwig to write a large brass piece for a student ensemble, and he will be paid work/study wages of $8.75 per hour. This work/study commissioning process was formalized recently. Although performers are not generally required to play student works, any time a composition is completed, it does get performed. Composers often must negotiate these performances themselves, but begging is not usually involved since most of the works are written for specific student performers. There is also a yearly orchestral concert specifically for composition students. Of the places Ludwig has studied, he says this is the easiest to get his works performed.

In addition to student concerts, there are other formalized ways that performers and composers interact. Student conductors are invited to attend a monthly composition seminar which Richard Danielpour himself makes the trek to Curtis to conduct. During this seminar student and faculty works or landmark pieces from the 20th Century are examined, and occasionally a composer from outside the school is invited to discuss his or her music.

The day that I called, Aaron Jay Kernis was visiting and giving a master class at the school. Other recent speakers include Bernard Rands and John Adams.

Curtis does seem to prefer its own. An ad hoc group of composers and performers that plays only 20th Century works is called “Composers from Curtis” and, as the name suggests, they play only the music of Curtis composers. While the school does occasionally commission new works, recent commissions are all for Curtis alumni/faculty: Ned Rorem’s 4th Piano Concerto, written for Gary Graffman, and two new works to celebrate Curtis’ 75th anniversary were composed by Daron Hagen and Jennifer Higdon.

In some ways the schools conservative nature is a drawback. Although a retrospective CD of the year’s best student concerts is released annually, this year is incredibly the first time a student composer has been included. There are no Jazz nor World Music courses, and Curtis has no electronic nor computer music studio. However, students can arrange access at the University of Pennsylvania‘s facilities. Because the school is so small, there are no formal opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration between student composers and other student artists (dancers, filmmakers, playwriters, etc). However, some cross-pollination does occasionally occur University of Pennsylvania personnel. For example, Daniel Kellogg collaborated on a song-cycle with a U Penn Literature Major. Despite its stature as one of the world’s premiere conservatories, Curtis does very little to foster new audiences among the local community.

From Making Conservatories Less Conservative
by Stefan Weisman
© 1999 NewMusicBox

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