Most schools might prefer that graduating students show up to collect their diplomas.
But at Saturday's ceremonies launching 36 graduates into uncertain futures, the Curtis Institute of Music noted a no-show with some pride: Canadian violinist Nikki Chooi sent his regrets, as he was busy being a finalist in Belgium's prestigious Queen Elisabeth Competition.
Several names on the roster of graduates were able to don caps and gowns only through luck of the calendar. Almost any member of this year's class — busy pianist Haochen Zhang, rising violinist Benjamin Beilman, soprano Allison Sanders, who was tapped for the Philadelphia Orchestra's recent Elektra — could have been otherwise engaged in a career taking him or her around the globe.
In fact, after Saturday's speeches and a brief lunch, two-thirds of the Rittenhouse Square conservatory's 165 or so students, plus faculty and staff, fetched their bags and boarded an evening flight to Germany. The Curtis orchestra opens the Dresden Music Festival on Tuesday, continues Thursday in the city with a 4½-hour chamber-music marathon at Volkswagen's glass-sheathed Die Gläserne Manufaktur (Transparent Factory), and finishes Friday in a collaboration with choreographer Royston Maldoom and Dresden schoolchildren. Tuesday's concert will be streamed live (see box).
Curtis has toured Europe before, and students occasionally are too busy being successful to attend graduation, but the three Dresden concerts cap a remarkable year. The school opened a first-ever dorm in the fall, and spent the season celebrating its history in concerts and tours. Earlier in the week, the school held its last Wednesday tea of the year in honor of Eleanor Sokoloff, a piano professor whose presence at Curtis is starting to resemble that of the stone lions Patience and Fortitude at the New York Public Library. This was her 75th year doling out prescriptions of Bach and Pischna and advice about when, and when not, to enter competitions. After a spell in Maine, she's planning on more in the fall.
"People assume she gets her boundless energy from her students. I believe it is actually the other way around," former Curtis director Gary Graffman told a crowd of tea-takers who gathered before an enormous sheet cake topped by one of Sokoloff's signature hats rendered in fondant icing.
At 97, Sokoloff may be keeper of a certain pedagogical flame, but she is no slave to tradition. Curtis Institute president Roberto Díaz followed Graffman by thanking Sokoloff for embracing new ideas, such as the dorm. "Your support of what we have done at Curtis is one of the most important things I've had," he said.
Saturday's commencement was its 79th — the school was founded in 1924 but did not hold commencements in the early days — and Díaz opened by immediately acknowledging the event that had been on everyone's mind. Second-year double-bass student Louisa Womack died May 3 in her dorm room, her death ruled a suicide by the Philadelphia medical examiner.
"We have come together, remembered her, mourned her, and played in her honor," Díaz said before holding a few moments of silence in her memory. Díaz had left to students the question of music-making after the loss of the 20-year-old from Rochester, N.Y., and for several days, performances were canceled.
The death shook the school, which found itself in somber territory not visited — according to Curtis lore — in three decades. Students blanketed the stone entrance of the main building and sills of Lenfest Hall with flowers, and set up a "We Love Louisa" Facebook page.
Her name was still listed with her double-bass colleagues in Friday night's program for the Curtis orchestra's season-opener of the Mann Center. Curtis graduate Rossen Milanov led the orchestra in Brahms' Symphony No. 2, which Dresden audiences will hear Tuesday under another Curtis grad, Roberto Spano. (He and students will undoubtedly heed a warning on the Dresden Music Festival website: "Austria was Brahms' second homeland, and, as he felt, a place where melodies fly so thick and fast that you have to take care not to step on one!")
The concert was free, and the cool evening at the Mann drew about 4,400 listeners, a Mann spokeswoman said. Leonard Bernstein (Class of 1941) was represented by the "Symphonic Dances" from West Side Story in a version choreographed by Jody Anderson and realized by dancers from the Rock School for Dance Education. The orchestra was moved back on the Mann stage, which meant the only available sound was of the amplified sort. Moved to the front for the Brahms, the effect was glorious.
Brahms opened the program: the Academic Festival Overture, his spirited response to an honorary doctorate from the University of Breslau. A mere "thank you" — concise but obviously heartfelt — was the reaction the next morning at graduation when an honorary doctorate was conferred upon Otto-Werner Mueller, the venerable orchestral wise man who has been on the Curtis faculty since 1986. As head of the conducting department, he is renowned for a rehearsing routine of terse commentary in pursuit of the essence of musical interpretation.
While evoking their professor's German accent in varying shades, the graduation ceremony's two student speakers recalled the time that Mueller had declared a phrase so dry that even his socks were falling asleep, and another in which he said if he had made a sound like that he would have flushed the toilet.
At moments like this, it was good to be reminded that such observations compelled Otto-Werner Muellerites Alan Gilbert (New York Philharmonic music director) and Joseph W. Polisi (Juilliard School president) to greater levels of musical awareness. Tributes from both were read.
Curtis' other honorary doctorate went to, of all musical practitioners, a music critic. Alex Ross, author of The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, has been since 1996 the New Yorker's cheery evangelist for an art form under duress. But what does one call that art form? And under whose constraints does it struggle? Ross argued, as others have, that the term classical music is inaccurate. He urged the field to rethink its strategy, not to plead for attention, but to "demand it, expect it."
Ross poked fun at his own musical chops, saying that as a pianist in high school he once played a recital comprised entirely of slow movements. He used his catholic taste for Duke Ellington, Nina Simone, and Björk to make the argument that by referencing them in his writing, readers interested in pop might follow him into the classical realm. Some of the genre's marginalization is self-inflicted damage, he suggested, noting "concert dress bizarrely frozen in time."
He also frowned upon the practice of discouraging people from applauding between movements. In this regard, however, Friday night's Mann audience was way ahead of him. The field may be challenged, but in between movements of this Brahms symphony, demonstrations of enthusiasm would not be contained — as if, despite the ensemble's recent loss, Philadelphia was determined to send its youthful orchestra to Europe with the wind at its back.
Contact Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/artswatch.
Read Curtis' blog from the Dresden Music Festival at www.philly.com/postcards.