Curtis in the Age of Anxiety

Image“They dwelt at ease in their sown centers, sunny their minds, fine their features; their flesh was carried on beautiful bones; they bore themselves lightly through life; they loved their children and entertained with all their senses a world of detail.” –W.H. Auden

I made it out this past weekend to see The Curtis Symphony Orchestra perform at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia.  The program included works by Danielpour and Prokofiev, but I was there for another reason- Leonard Bernstein.  The program included Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2 “The Age of Anxiety,” which I had never had the opportunity to hear live.  Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety” is a programmatic work based on the long poem of the same name by W.H. Auden.  Each piece on the program featured a Curtis graduate, and the Curtis Symphony gladly boasts that Bernstein is one of their own (Class of ’41).

However, Bernstein and Curtis had a relationship that was a bit tumultuous.  Herein lays the paradox of this performance:  Bernstein was known to be a harsh critic of Curtis and was publicly despised by Mary Louis Curtis Bok, the founder of the Curtis Institute of Music.  Bernstein also had no problem acknowledging that he didn’t really enjoy his time at Curtis.  Bernstein sheds a little light on this in an interview that was reproduced for Bernstein by Joan Peyser:

“It was like walking into an alien land…Curtis was an island of musical enterprise; there seemed to be no one with whom I could share my Audenesque feelings…”

Indeed, Bernstein felt that Curtis represented the complete antithesis of “The Age of Anxiety.”  Bernstein continues:

“…others had entered the school in short pants years before, and were still totally immersed in hammering out the Etude in thirds faster than the nearest competitor; or perhaps it was a Paganini Caprice or a Puccini aria.  In any case, interdisciplinary it was not.  Philosophy, history, aesthetics- all irrelevant.  The school seemed to me like a virtuoso factory, turning out identical virtuosi like sausages.  I exaggerate, of course, but that’s how it seemed to me in September, 1939.”

Of course, Curtis has received these kinds of complaints more than once throughout the years.  On some levels Curtis has been rigid in their continuing conservatism.  The program from the concert asserts Curtis’s bold Deweyan philosophy: “A busy schedule of performances is at the heart of Curtis’s distinctive ‘learning by doing’ approach.”  Indeed, Curtis has proved its excellence by graduating the likes of Samuel Barber, Lukas Foss, David Shifrin, Leonard Rose, and Reid Anderson of The Bad Plus.  Still, it is somewhat disheartening to look at the program notes and see Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1 labeled as “Kaddish,” (Symphony No. 1 was actually subtitled “Jeremiah.”  Symphony No. 3 was subtitled “Kaddish,” but there was no reference to Symphony No. 3 in the context of these notes).  I would think that an oversight like this would be embarrassing beyond belief to an institution like Curtis.  I know these kids can play a lot of notes, but they are also tomorrow’s music educators.  Do they actually know what they are talking about?

In Curtis’s defense, they have modernized their program and it is certainly not the same program that existed in the late 30s to early 40s.  Check out this: Day in the Life of a Curtis Student.  Their Musical Studies Department has 18 faculty members, their Liberal Arts (!) Department has 14 faculty members, 1 faculty member teaches Alexander Technique, and a Career Studies Department adds 4 more faculty members.  I wonder what Lenny would have to say about Curtis today?

In regards to the concert, the Curtis Symphony Orchestra performed Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2 at a very high caliber for a student group (would you expect anything less from Curtis?).  I was particularly taken by the subtle artistry of the string and percussion sections.  There are many exposed and highly delicate moments in the music that these sections executed with firm control (not to mention the execution of that extremely bare passage of woodwinds in the “Prologue”).  I was also quite amazed at the rich tone that the brass players commanded at such a young age.

But as with any of Lenny’s works, there has to be some jazz, right?  The “Masque” in the second part of the symphony displays Bernstein’s love of Hollywood, Broadway, and Jazz.  This included a drum set-up that the man next to me described excitedly as “Buddy Rich Drums.”  For those outside of the classical world, we just call this a drum-set.  HA!  I also have to say, Curtis could really use a little help in this department though.  There is nothing jazzy about anything that happened in the “Masque.”  A Curtis Jazz Department might have helped, but I suppose I shouldn’t push my luck or ask for too much.

Although Curtis embodies the isolationism that sometimes overlooks the “Age of Anxiety,” the old saying “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” applies here.  Curtis does not excel at providing the world with historians, aestheticians, and philosophers; but it is still providing training to some of the best classical musicians in world.  The music in clubs, bars, and halls around Philadelphia are evolving yearly, but the strength of Curtis’s tradition seems intact.  After all, what does a bar have to with music?

“When the historical process breaks down and armies organize with their embossed debates the ensuing void which they can never consecrate, when necessity is associated with horror and freedom with boredom, then it looks good to the bar business.” –W.H. Auden

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