Can I still play the old Curtis way?

Can I still play the old Curtis way?


norman lebrecht

March 30, 2018

From our diarist, Anthea Kreston:

I am awash in memories, after spending a glorious and hard-working Brahms week with my piano trio and guest violist Roberto Díaz, President and CEO of Curtis. I went straight from my early morning train from a Quartet concert in Frankfurt to a long Trio rehearsal at the Universität der Künste. It feels like ages since we have really dug in together, and yet, a mixture of my new musical life in Europe found a balance with the traditions of my rigorous, romantic training.

Sitting down with Roberto Diaz was both an absolute pleasure, and a reminder of how I have changed – the depth of his sound (and of our pianists’ sound), the flexibility of phrase, the unapologetic, thick sound, the width of vibrato and crazy-seeming bow techniques. These brought me back to my fundamental training in music – the Curtis Sound (the Philadelphia Sound?).

The hours under the baton of Otto Werner Müller, our conductor and teacher – his relentless training if us all – the strictness of the length of notes (so much more sustained and with a length which is non-negotiable), the meaning of a dot over a note (refers to only that note, no preparing for the dot with the note before) distinguishing so clearly between composers – no bleeding between styles, each composer with a rigid yet full-throated and singing universe. Müller (whose hometown, Bensheim, Germany, I recently performed in), was a consummate trainer of both his conducting students and all players at Curtis, whose student body is exactly the size of a symphony orchestra. For example, there is one Tuba position, therefore only one opening every 4 years (17% of principal players in the top 25 US orchestras are Curtis graduates). Müller was demanding, honest, life-changing. He prized score-study above all else (there was nothing more insulting to an orchestra than to have a conductor step in front of them unprepared). He diligently edited all parts for the orchestra – remarking rests to be logically partitioned, adding his own rehearsal letters, bowings, clarifying articulations and answering questions in advance – anything that would streamline rehearsals. Every Saturday I had an additional 3 hours of “lab orchestra” as a part of my student work-study – those hours have influenced every part of my musical philosophy.

Roberto’s length of notes were so absolute – something I have veered away from because I was sounding inappropriately long and romantic here. After our first reading, I raised my arms in a “whoop-whoop” – and said “I am so all-in on these long quarter notes!”. Roberto looked at me, and said “oh, you mean not clipped?”. Exactly. There is only one length, and if you would like to go shorter or longer, you have to negotiate terms – but the fundamental rules form a firm communal sound – it is so easy to play together, even though three of us went to Curtis at different times.

Before the second movement of the Op. 25 Brahms Piano Quartet, Roberto said to me – “well, either you can tell me your bowings, or I can tell you mine”. The opening violin/viola duo has many options, and no clear choice. I have so many different ones crossed out, multiple ups written over multiple downs. It is a mess. I said, “let’s not talk – I have a feeling we will have the same bowings”, and low-and-behold, for the entire Quartet, we rarely were at odds. After the reading, he said “well, I guess we got the same free education”. The only differences – I sometimes would choose huge areas of all up bows, and he chose all downs. In the concert, we spontaneously did the first time all ups, then did all downs on the repeat. It was a fun time to have that kind of spontaneity and flexibility in a performance.

By this time next week, I will have played in Princeton and Library of Congress, staying with the widow of Isaac Stern and Andrew Moravcsik and Anne-Marie Slaughter. I have opted out of many of the hotels this time, preferring to stay with family and friends, to avoid the loneliness I experienced during my last US tour. Friends meet me along the way, with Trader Joe’s Trail Mix, – I am maxed out on all of my comps – hoping for a balance of fun, great music-making, and connecting with old and new friends.


  • Kananpoika says:

    Thank you Anthea Kreston for your stunningly accurate paragraph on Otto-Werner Mueller. I had the great fortune to work with him extensively, and although I was never
    a conducting student, I consider him to be the most prominent influence in my
    musical life. His way of organizing scores and parts was truly brilliant, highly efficient,
    and, as you say, made rehearsals rewarding experiences. His baton technique was
    in a class by itself. I often reflect that he knew more about Western
    classical music than anyone alive.

    • B. Collins says:

      He was a conductor with some degree of talent…more knowledge than talent. But damn was he a hardcore pessimist and would have benefited from being more of a well-rounded human being. There were times that he would just go off on the orchestra, practically blaming all of us for the fact that his wife was disabled and that he had to “bathe her.” Tough situation, but we had nothing to do with it. Perhaps some of us had much harder situations in our families. Anywhooooo…I was brave enough to approach him and chat with him several times, normally as he walked back to his apartment. He was caught off guard because it seemed like no one had ever done that before, but he could sense that my intentions were pure. He kicked me out of the final concert before graduation because there was a nasty situation going on with the faculty, resulting in my teacher’s students being given the s*** end of the stick. I was given a second part, which Müller had significantly edited. I asked him, “Do you think I could maybe play a note in this symphony?” He wasn’t happy because he thought that I was criticizing his musical choices when in fact I was simply protesting because I should have been playing first. At the time, the assistant dean was basically in bed with one of the faculty members and all her students were constantly being handed first parts.

    • Steve says:

      Agreed. Wonderful musician.

  • Carole says:

    And those of us privileged to attend his Saturday morning rehearsals learned right along with you. Not only did he insist/explain/emphasize parts of the score to the players, but to the friends of Curtis as well.

  • Marg says:

    Thank you Anthea! I love reading about all the intricate details that go into giving me a sublime listening experience as an audience member – I feel like Im sitting in the rehearsal room observing.

  • Sue says:

    Once again, you’re living the dream!! 🙂

  • RW2013 says:

    Didn’t I take that photo of you at the Mendelssohn grave?

  • Leo says:

    “He prized score-study above all else”

    Oh yes.

    Alas… how many conductors today (including, more often than not, the top names) step in front of the orchestra fully (if not at least reasonably) prepared?

  • Ben G. says:

    Yale University 1975-76. OWM was our conductor and I worked under him in the Lab Orchestra as well, playing Beethoven’s 1st for his conducting students, and Bach’s St Matthew Passion with 15 other students. I could write a testimony to what he taught me as an orchestral musician, but then I would say the same thing as KANANPOIKA above.

    He also spoke (or had notions of) 13 languages. If you were serious about your work, you’d be on his good side. Otherwise, beware–he could publicly demolish you, and with good reason!

    • KANANPOIKA says:

      I recall hearing about the St. Mathew Passion seminar/Yale/1976. One of our local conductors took part in this workshop. Mueller assigned him a “simple” recitativo. Our man protested…he wanted one of the big choruses. Mueller rode herd on the poor chap, pointing out in no uncertain terms that any recitativo in the work was far more
      challenging, and that until one could successfully conduct one, they had no business
      doing one of the choruses.


    It is quite a shame that Curtis is not continuing the Mueller tradition of weekly lab orchestra readings/rehearsals. Nowadays, Yannick only pops in periodically to rehearse with Curtis’s conducting “fellows.” As a result of this new policy, instrumentalists at Curtis no longer receive the Mueller-esque training in the core orchestral repertoire that Ms. Kreston experienced while she was there.


    It is quite a shame that Curtis is not continuing the Mueller tradition of weekly lab orchestra readings/rehearsals. Nowadays, Yannick only pops in periodically to rehearse with Curtis’s conducting “fellows.” As a result of this new policy, instrumentalists at Curtis no longer receive the Mueller-esque training in the core orchestral repertoire that Ms. Kreston received there.

  • Stephen Lazarus says:

    Had the pleasure of playing Brahms Piano Quintet with Roberto at NEC as part of an Artist Diploma chamber music recital in Jordan Hall in 1982. A true gentleman, consummate artist and all around great guy! One of the highlights of my time at NEC! Others in the group were Donald Armstrong, Cynthia Roberts and Mimi Huang. We were coached by non other than Leonard Shure: a true artist but an extremely hard person to please!