Curtis On A Roll

If you look back at the history of great cultural institutions, great progress only happens when three forces are present simultaneously: a focused artistic visionary, an organized and astute administrative leader, and a board chairman with the financial might to concretize the plans of the former two.

It's still early in the tenure of the triumvirate that's now in charge of the Curtis Institute of Music: board chair H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, president Roberto Díaz and executive vice president Elizabeth Warshawer. But with this week's news that the school has raised $65 million to expand its facilities, you might be right in thinking that Curtis is one of the rare instances of an arts group not merely aspiring to survive, but to flourish.

It helps to know your place in the world. Many music schools divide their attention, offering music education, ethnomusicology, music engineering and other pursuits. Curtis is small, and it benefits from a narrowly focused mission: to train singers, conductors, composers and instrumentalists for careers in opera, chamber music and the orchestra world. You can't argue with the track record. Leonard Bernstein went there, so did Barber. Many principal players in American and European orchestras are Curtis grads.

In any case, if you start to knit together the kinds of initiatives Lenfest, Díaz and Warshawer are launching, you realize Curtis is on the brink of an era of enormous promise. The new building - with its dorms, orchestra rehearsal room and studios - is the tip of the iceberg. Curtis aims to redevelop its conducting program, increase opportunities for students to work with a greater number of faculty, give students their own music library to take with them after graduation, increase touring for the orchestra and smaller ensembles, replenish faculty without losing institutional memory that comes with older professors, allow students to take remote master classes with artists via Internet2, and undertake a number of inside-baseball but important other changes. 

Some of these are new ideas, others are codifying efforts already underway. Taken together, they do nothing to change the mission. In fact, they only amplify the school's strengths, which, at a time when other schools are paring down to core mission, were never a source of confusion at Curtis.