LIANE HANSEN, host:

At the corner of 18th and Locust Streets in Philadelphia stands a building that represents 82 years of classical music history. Since 1924, the Curtis Institute of Music has trained thousands of artists, including legendary conductor Leonard Bernstein and Pulitzer Prize winning composer Ned Rorem.

(Soundbite of piano)

HANSEN: That's Rorem's Piano Concerto for Left Hand and Orchestra. The featured pianist is Gary Graffman. He's as much a part of the Curtis Institute as Wednesday afternoon teatime in the Common Room. After 20 years as director and president of the school, the 77-year-old Graffman is stepping down from the post. He joined the faculty in 1980, became director in 1986, and took on duties as president in 1995. When I spoke with Graffman recently as the spring semester ended, he explained some of the Curtis Institute's quirks.

Mr. GARY GRAFFMAN (Director/President, Curtis Institute of Music): We have very few students. We have enough, about 160-odd students to make an orchestra, enough singers that we could do some opera, 17 to 20 or 21 pianists, five or so conductors, five or so composers, that's about it. It's makes 160 something, so more time and energy and concern and worry can be expended on each student than in a normal school. It is free. Nobody pays tuition. Those who cannot afford to pay room and board and so forth, we take care of that as well. Everybody has a merit scholarship. We don't accept students for audition in most categories. Basically, you have to be 20 or younger and most are younger. When I came at the age of seven, and I stayed at Curtis, by the way, for ten years - that's another thing, it's open-ended, there's no exact number of years - my teacher was also teaching Leonard Bernstein. At that time Bernstein was ten years older than I. So it is quite a unique situation.

HANSEN: Is there a one-sentence basic philosophy of the Curtis Institute that you could articulate?

Mr. GRAFFMAN: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

When you're training young kids, young pianists, to play a Beethoven sonata, there are no new ways of doing it. Yes, you prepare them for the world. The world around has been changing a little bit.

HANSEN: To prepare students for life after Curtis, Graffman focused on the recording studio, which has become an inescapable reality of the music business. The Curtis Symphony Orchestra recorded an album on New World Records in the mid-1990s with the help of an influential friend.

Mr. GRAFFMAN: It was with the help of Andre Previn, who was so impressed with the school that he proposed it to his record company and he is the one who made that recording, and it was wonderful for the school.

HANSEN: Are students actually tutored in the business of music?

Mr. GRAFFMAN: To some extent. We have a course called 21st Century Musician. We bring in doctors, psychiatrists, people who tell you how to prepare your tax returns, members of Philadelphia Orchestra to tell them about audition procedures, critics. So about life, what life is like when you leave this maybe overly-protected place.

HANSEN: Talk a little bit about the reputation of the place. It's been called eccentric, anachronistic, elitist, insular, paternalistic; but on the other hand, the school has also produced an extraordinary number of distinguished musicians: Lan Wong(ph), the pianist, Hilary Hahn, the violinist. Do you think perhaps that Curtis produces this high-level because of its eccentricities or maybe despite its eccentricities?

Mr. GRAFFMAN: Well, maybe more because. By the way, you use the word elite. In my dictionary, elite means the best. If you're going to have your appendix out, you want an elite doctor doing it. I know it's a maligned word these days, but yes, it's an elite school, and I hope it will continue to be so.

HANSEN: But it is eccentric, I mean the school where you can get your tuition paid and get an instrument and a place to live...

Mr. GRAFFMAN: Well, the result is 50 percent of the Philadelphia Orchestra is and has been for a very long time made up of Curtis graduates. I'm very proud to say that about 25 percent of the Philadelphia Orchestra is made up of people whose diplomas I signed during these 20 years. Some of the them got into the orchestra or other orchestras like that while they were still students. There's no Curtis stamp of the kind of musician you are. I mean, another one of my students, Ignat Solzhenitsyn, for example, who was a double major because he was also conducting and he's a conductor of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia now and goes around as guest conductor, but also going around giving piano recitals all over the place, both he and Lan Wong, they were both my students for approximately the same amount of time. They're both major artists, totally different approach to music.

(Soundbite of piano and cello)

HANSEN: Solzhenitsyn performed Beethoven's Cello Sonata No. 4 with Cellist Wendy Warner at her graduation recital in 1993.

(Soundbite of piano and cello)

HANSEN: What happens to the students who, you know, don't go onto the big stellar careers? Like any profession, they're going to be stars, they're going to be co-stars, they're going to be character actors.

Mr. GRAFFMAN: Every violinist who comes in, or anyway, the mother of every violinist who comes in, expects her daughter or son to be playing in front of all the major orchestras, but many of them will end up playing in those major orchestras, which is really not such a terrible life.

HANSEN: Are the students prepared for any other career other than being a musician?

Mr. GRAFFMAN: Well, you're dealing with individuals, and in most cases, the answer is no. But obviously, there are students who have great interest in electronics and in anything else. We do have an arrangement with the University of Pennsylvania so that any one of our students can take any course given by the University of Pennsylvania that they're qualified to take, obviously, at no cost to them or to Curtis. Sure, there are a couple every now and then where it doesn't work out, but the success average is very high, I think.

HANSEN: Did you want the job as director?

Mr. GRAFFMAN: Not at first. There was a one-year gap between the former director, and I was asked, as were very, very many musicians, to recommend some ideas. I was just simply teaching at Curtis, and I got a call, Chairman of the Board, Mrs. Bach(ph), and said, well, she wants to know why you didn't recommend yourself. And I said, well, I didn't think that was the question I was asked. So she asked me to describe why I did not want to be considered a candidate. I started to put down on paper, you know, why, and the more I started seriously to think about it, the more I got intrigued about all these special things about Curtis, what makes it unique, why there's no other place like it in the world. So thinking of that, I got more and more intrigued and I said, hey, wait a minute, yeah, maybe, maybe, let's see.

HANSEN: During his 20 years at the helm of the Institute, Graffman noticed that he spent less time as a piano professor and more time handling administrative and fundraising responsibilities.

Mr. GRAFFMAN: The endowment, you know, people say how could we be all scholarship and all this, well, the endowment paid for most of all this, of course, so we have to raise money. And this is beginning to take more time each year than it did before. Probably none of this would've come up in the first few years except a once a year fundraising event. Now, it is very much on everybody's mind and has to be.

HANSEN: Are you leaving now because you're on that 20th anniversary and it just seems like the right time?

Mr. GRAFFMAN: Yeah, I think 20 years is a long time. Actually, I've been talking about leaving the administrative part, already for the last six years I've been talking about that. Twenty years is a good amount of time, I think.

HANSEN: So what are you going to do now that you will no longer be running the place?

Mr. GRAFFMAN: Well, I won't be involved with administrative things, which is fine as far as I'm concerned, although I enjoyed tremendously dealing with all the students. I will now be dealing mostly with piano students because I'll continue on, on the piano faculty. Instead of having an average of three students, which is all I had time for, I might have five or six. I'll play more concerts. I'll travel more. I'll read, which I haven't had time too much to do, brush up on my Chinese, because I studied Mandarin, but then neglected it, so spend more time with that.

HANSEN: What picture will remain in your memory about the time that you've spent in this incarnation as the artistic director and president?

Mr. GRAFFMAN: Students. I've played with them before and I've heard them all many times and I've played chamber music with some of them and I've heard, obviously, other people play and conduct them, and I've gotten to know very many of them. So it's that I think more than anything.

HANSEN: Gary Graffman will retire as director and president of the Curtis Institute of Music in the last day of May. Thank you very much. Best wishes to you.

Mr. GRAFFMAN: Thank you. It's a pleasure talking to you.

HANSEN: You can hear the work of Gary Graffman's many protégés at NPR.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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