During a memorable behind-the scenes tour in the Curtis Institute of Music, music streamed from playing rooms and singers’ powerful voices filled the opera studio. The mahogany-rich interior framed the striking portraits of past directors at this Philadelphia-based but world-renowned institution. Founded in 1924, the small school with 175 students has remained tuition free since 1928 because of a $12 million endowment from Founder Mary Louise Curtis Bok.
Jennifer Kallend, now managing director of communications, described some of the notable highlights, which include free performances. “You might hear a Beethoven violin concerto, a trombone and organ duo or a piano sonata. Student composers will have their work played, and conductors will conduct small orchestras,” she said. “The students are so talented. They are some of the best students in the country and world. It’s a pleasure to hear them play and sing.”
Here are some of her insights as we explored the Curtis Institute of Music including a black-box theater, with 125 seats, for small opera productions:
Is the student selection process highly competitive? Yes: About 4% of applicants are accepted, which is a low rate. That is because the school is small, and there are few open spots. We take enough students to replace the ones who are leaving.
Where do students come from, and what is the furthest location? They come primarily from Asia, Europe and all over the United States. The selection process is just based on talent rather than geography.
Do you recruit? We rely on the quality of our faculty and successful careers of our graduates. We have lots of grads playing in orchestras all over the world and singing in opera companies. It’s mostly word of mouth. Faculty may teach at a summer festival and say: “You must come to the Curtis to study.”
Who are some examples of famous graduates? One of the most famous is Lang Lang, the pianist. Hilary Hahn, the violinist came here at a young age and studied here for close to 10 years. The other interesting thing is there is no age limit—no minimum age. If you’re 6, you can come here. All students are just evaluated on their playing skills. If you’re 13 and play as well as a 20 year old, that’s fine. On average, most students are college age, but we get talented young prodigies. The age limit has been lifted; theoretically, if you are 40, you could come here and study.
Do you need to be young to succeed in a music career? Students who come here are not going to get a music degree and then go into business. They’re very serious about music and practice many hours a day. This is their whole life. If you are serious about a musical career, you need to be dedicated at a very young age. Many pianists or violinists start when they are very young. The earlier you start, the better.
What are some of the program highlights? We have orchestra concerts throughout the year and operas in different venues throughout the city. Some are at the Prince Theater and the Kimmel Center, which are very high level. The director of vocal studies gets fabulous directors and designers. They’re doing professional productions all over the world—in New York all the time—and come here to do something equally wonderful.
What is involved in the touring program? Ensembles of students, faculty and alumni perform different programs–from chamber music to a full orchestra. They go around the country and perform the same program. The idea is to take the Curtis to places where people may not be as aware of it. We are spreading the word about Curtis.
Curtis by the Numbers
Number of Student Performances — More than 200 annually, reaching over 23,500 people
Curtis on Tour — Since the program was established in 2008, Curtis on Tour has allowed students, faculty, and alumni to perform more than 200 concerts in Europe, Asia, and the Americas.
Online Courses — Over 1,000 learners from 182 countries have enrolled in free online courses currently offered through Coursera.
Curtis Summerfest — In 2017, Curtis Summerfest attracted 223 participants from 17 countries.
Faculty — The 113-member faculty includes many artists of international stature.
Alumni — 2,803 Curtis alumni can be found in 36 countries around the world, performing with leading orchestras, opera companies, and chamber ensembles.
To learn more about the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and find details about upcoming performances, visit www.curtis.edu.