The Curtis Institute of Music is one of the most storied institutions in all of classical music. Starry-eyed children in practice rooms around the world dream of someday walking the hallowed halls of the former Rittenhouse Square mansion, following in the footsteps of the legends whose musical genius still resonates in these spaces. I was one of the lucky few who slipped past the 4% admission rate to live out my childhood dream of studying there, and I deeply love Curtis and the gift of the musical values it imbued in me.
On Thursday, July 25, at 6:08 a.m. I opened an email from Curtis spokeswoman Patricia Johnson informing the entire Curtis alumni community that The Inquirer had published an in-depth article chronicling Curtis alumna Lara St. John’s allegations of sexual assault by her former teacher Jascha Brodsky and the school’s apparent failure to appropriately investigate her claims.
I have never met Ms. St. John, and Mr. Brodsky died years before I became a student at Curtis. I had — and still have — no intention of weighing in on the veracity of these claims, nor which legal procedures should or should not have taken place. It is neither my story to tell nor mine to litigate.
Nonetheless, I immediately read the lengthy article from top to bottom. Then I read the conclusion of the alumni email:
“… we request that you refrain from discussing this matter publicly, online, or on social media.”
My blood began to boil.
It’s been nearly two years since the #MeToo movement swept across the nation and inspired a sea change in the way that sexual harassment is viewed and handled. At the heart of the movement is the idea that open dialogue is the most direct path to healing. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports that more than 90% of sexual-assault victims on college campuses do not report the assault. In a rarefied environment such as Curtis, where many students worship their legendary teachers, it can be especially difficult to voice dissent or speak ill of one’s elders.
After the alumni email stirred a flurry of protest on social media, Curtis offered two attempts at an apology. The first proclaimed, “We sincerely regret not properly conveying today the weight of our commitment to these values,” followed by a list of bare minimums met by the current sexual-harassment policy, including “Orientation, constituent handbooks, and our annual Security and Fire Safety Report.” The second, written by Curtis president Roberto Diaz, included a promise that “we will do whatever is needed to make this right” and a pledge to establish an anonymous reporting hotline.
While handbooks and hotlines are certainly good starting points, these are not sufficient indications of an institution on the leading edge of creating a culture of safety, transparency, and honest dialogue around these painful issues. The values of excellence and leadership are fundamental to the Curtis philosophy, and these are sorely missing from its response to this crisis.
The antidote to this plague is to speak freely and to be heard. No organization is immune to the cultural poison of assault and abuse, but the answer is never to sweep the dirt under the rug. Curtis should indeed reach out to alumni and students — but instead of asking for their silence and then doling out apologies, it should ask for the truth. If the giants of the classical music world who trained generations of the world’s finest artists committed unthinkable acts, then that uncomfortable truth must coexist alongside their musical legacies.
If Mr. Brodsky or any other person was wrongly accused, he can only be cleared by a thorough and transparent investigation. And this can never transpire without an environment that encourages a truly open exchange of ideas and experiences.
Don’t ask us to stay silent.
Bronwyn Banerdt is a cellist in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and a 2008 graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern California and a master’s degree from the Juilliard School. She is a founding member of the Pittsburgh Cello Quartet and the Clarion Quartet, which received the Curtis Alumni Entrepreneur Grant in 2016.