When COVID-19 hit and live performances died down, the sound of practicing pianists and trombonists echoed from the windows of the Curtis Institute of Music to the streets around Rittenhouse Square.
Shortly after the onset of the pandemic, however, the silence gave way to something more impactful: construction. As students sat at home taking online classes, the three historic buildings that make up Curtis’ ancestral home underwent a surprising renovation.
Climb the new bluestone steps of the elite tuition-free conservatory today and it all looks familiar – and not. In the common room, there are two bulky reception desks, as well as a large glass firewall that has divided the space. The incongruous window air conditioning has been removed. The elaborate, white oak paneled space has been largely restored to how it looked when it was a private mansion – large, open and uncluttered.
If the public perceives the space as an invitation, this is only the signal that the school leaders sought to send.
“It’s a philosophical change for the school. There’s no doubt that we want to be a more open and accessible place,” said Larry Bomback, Senior Vice President of Curtis Administration. “That was one of the main reasons for doing this project in the first place, was to make it more accessible, to have more people walking in the doors.”
Curtis’ interior is one of those jaw-dropping Philadelphia surprises, and more so now. Fireplaces have been cleaned and restored, elaborate woodwork made to match the old, and an architecturally appropriate new chandelier for the ornate Bok Room is on the way.
The changes at Curtis, overseen by Northern Liberties architecture firm IEI Group, are neither merely cosmetic nor modest. The project came with a price tag of $15 million (only half of which has been raised so far) and included replacing the practice room window units with modern heating, ventilation, and air conditioning; the installation of a new robust elevator capable of hoisting grand pianos; the addition of a larger costume and wig store; and some refreshments from the Field Concert Hall, where most public concerts take place.
Carved into what was previously the roof, the fourth-floor mini black box space, called the Media and Innovation Lab, is a technical response to the largest black box opera theater in existence. There is also a new network of corridors at the back of the house which allow better access everywhere.
Curtis had planned to launch renovations over three to five summers. Then the pandemic hit and the buildings were gutted, and school administrators approved a version of the renovation that was completed in less than 18 months.
Curtis may be announcing a new opening, although he’s not just opening his doors without limits. In fact, a new system of electronic passes now allows the school to control who goes where and when.
Nor are visitors invited to show up at any time to listen to the rehearsal rooms for an endless stream of Liszt, Mahler and Brahms. But students are now physically back in school, public recitals have resumed, and audiences can walk the halls to see artifacts from the school’s history as one of the world’s top producers of soloists, opera singers and orchestra players.
These renovations can be seen as a continuation of an opening of the Curtis Cloister that began decades ago when more concerts were extended to the public. Calls have intensified in recent years for classical music to break through its perceived elitism and engage the public in the process. The new Media and Innovation Lab, seen by Curtis as a place where art and technology come together, is promising. Its maiden voyage is in April when visitors can experience the school Scheherazade Project, an immersive fusion of Rimsky’s music with floor-to-ceiling imagery. Topics to be explored in the coming years include artificial intelligence, augmented reality and games.
Renovations were long planned as an extension of Curtis’ major eastward one-block expansion in 2011 to a new 105,000-square-foot building designed by Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates, which houses dormitories , a cafeteria, an orchestra rehearsal room and studios. As sleek and efficient as these spaces are, they have the look and feel of many new high-end college buildings.
Updating the historic structures at 18th and Locust Streets required something different. Perhaps no other music conservatory in the United States values its musical roots like Curtis does, and even though the school has said goodbye to some traditions – the intensive orchestral laboratory program led by the late Otto -Werner Mueller, invaluable to both young conductors as well as instrumentalists comes to mind – he is keen to project the legacy as a strength and, if you will, a brand.
Inheritance means ceremony. Curtis will continue to pour tea every Wednesday in the common room for students, faculty and staff on a samovar brought from Russia by former headmaster Efrem Zimbalist.
For visitors, there is no doubt that semi-public spaces are steeped in the past. A museum aura has been preserved in the director’s office, where a Norman Rockwell portrait of Curtis founder Mary Louise Curtis Bok gazes. The school’s original charter, bearing the signatures of Bok and Curtis family members, now appears on the large Bok Hall mantle.
Many spaces have been meticulously restored. But the new hallways at the back of the house that connect the three historic buildings are cold, white and featureless, like airport or hospital passageways. The doors to some of the historic spaces—the director’s office, some practice rooms—also seem at stark odds with the elegance of old Philadelphia.
The names of teaching studios commemorating such vaunted teaching stars as oboist Marcel Tabuteau and harpist Carlos Salzedo have been retained, but perhaps not forever. A school spokesperson said: “We have investigated whether named spaces should keep their names. These conversations are still ongoing.
A strong link to history has been established with this renovation, but Curtis, who celebrates his centenary in 2024, cannot rely on his past to stay competitive. Other music conservatories also have a long heritage and strive to be free, like Curtis. The school has recently been forced to come to terms with its own past, a history that includes allegations of sexual and emotional abuse of students, as documented by The Inquirer and a subsequent report by law firm Cozen O’Connor.
It’s not clear to me if the golden age of classical music in America (essentially the 20th century) has quite the student appeal that it once did. Social justice, entrepreneurship, technological skills and whether such a degree will bring employment seem more salient. The past is no longer what it was.
The opening of Lenfest Hall over a decade ago blew some dust on the institution, and this renovation at least provides the space to imagine what the future may be for classical music. But it’s what happens inside the school’s walls – its ability to offer a new set of real skills while not reducing the high level of hyper-specialized training – that will determine whether Curtis stays on top. .
The Curtis Institute’s “Scheherazade” project, from April 29 to May 1, is presented free of charge, although reservations are required at [email protected] or 215-893-7902. Student recitals are free but require reservations, curtis.edu.