Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Gary Graffman, longtime professor and one-time Curtis Institute president, has left the school

Jennifer Higdon, a Pulitzer Prize winning composer, is leaving the Curtis faculty, citing professional and family obligations.

Gary Graffman acknowledges the audience after playing with the Curtis Institute of Music orchestra in Verizon Hall in 2006.
Gary Graffman acknowledges the audience after playing with the Curtis Institute of Music orchestra in Verizon Hall in 2006.Read more

The Curtis Institute of Music and pianist Gary Graffman have parted ways after a relationship that began more than eight decades ago. Graffman, the school’s marquee piano professor and one-time director and president, is no longer a member of the faculty.

Curtis spokesperson Patricia K. Johnson said that the decision was arrived at by Graffman after the school held discussions with him over the summer, though she would not provide any details. She said Curtis president Roberto Diaz declined to speak about the matter.

Graffman, 92, who lives in New York, said Friday that he is now unable to physically travel to Philadelphia for lessons and that he is no longer interested in teaching remotely, as he has done during the pandemic. And so his Curtis days are likely over.

He has invited the students he would have had this year to play for him in his home in New York, he said. They would have to do so on a private basis in addition to their Curtis studies, rather than through the conservatory.

Following a 2019 Inquirer investigation into sexual abuse at the school and a subsequent report by a law firm, Curtis has put in place, starting this school year, a prohibition on students taking lessons in the private homes of teachers.

In another significant departure, Jennifer Higdon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Philadelphia composer who joined the Curtis faculty in 1994, has resigned. She said she is busy with upcoming premieres and recordings of her works, as well as looking after the care of her mother, and that it was becoming increasingly difficult to manage it all.

“I realized that after 25 years of teaching at Curtis and with all these concerts, it seemed like the right time to leave,” said Higdon, who holds degrees from Curtis and the University of Pennsylvania.

Both departures were announced to the Curtis faculty on Friday. The school term begins Monday.

Graffman was Curtis’ longest and strongest link with its early days. He was accepted to the school at the age of 7 and studied there for a decade. At age 18, he made his Philadelphia Orchestra debut and went on to a major solo career before seeing it ended by an injury to his right hand.

He joined the Curtis faculty in 1980, became director in 1986, and held the title of president from 1995 until his retirement in 2006. He is a widely sought-after piano teacher, with Lang Lang and Yuja Wang among his one-time students.

“He was such a fixture at the school,” said organist Alan Morrison, who is starting his 20th year teaching at Curtis. “With the passing of [piano professor] Eleanor Sokoloff last year, it’s inevitable that things can’t stay the same forever. But it’ll be a different era for sure.”

Graffman’s early tenure as head of the school came under scrutiny in an Inquirer investigation into the sexual abuse of violinist Lara St. John by her violin professor when she was a 14-year-old student there in the mid-1980s. Certain details of the abuse were shared at the time with Graffman and Graffman’s wife, Naomi Graffman, who had an unofficial role in the school’s leadership, and then-dean Robert Fitzpatrick.

No action was taken against the professor, violinist Jascha Brodsky; no investigation was undertaken at the time; and St. John was assigned to another teacher.

A subsequent report into sexual abuse at the school by law firm Cozen O’Connor found St. John’s allegations credible. It stated that Curtis’ institutional response at the time reflected a “lack of understanding of the dynamics of child sexual abuse, as evidenced by the lack of training, education, appropriate policies, and institutional infrastructure,” and that “Fitzpatrick and Graffman’s failure to respond appropriately resulted in significant and detrimental impacts on a 15-year-old student entrusted to Curtis’ care, including interruption of St. John’s educational development and long-term psychological impacts.”

Curtis has since put in place a number of new policies, reporting procedures, and personnel to address complaints of sexual abuse and misconduct, harassment, and violence.

As for the piano faculty, in the past year Curtis has named two new professors: Yefim Bronfman and Michelle Cann.

In another recent change, the school did not renew the contract of Richard Woodhams, one-time principal oboist of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Curtis has also declined to comment on the reasons behind that decision.