Exclusive: Deep conservatory cuts begin

Exclusive: Deep conservatory cuts begin


norman lebrecht

August 07, 2020

We hear from an insider that the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia has just laid off 14 staff, one of them a member of the senior leadership team. Their names have been erased from the website.

The Department of Artistic Programs and Performances has been abolished, our source says. The Department oversees all orchestral, solo, and chamber music, including the Student Recital Series and master classes. Five of the firings were from that department, including its head.

There is considerable anger that the cuts have fallen in a week when Curtis granted a residency to the Dover Quartet, an unprecedented and, in the view of many staff, unnecessary position.

We have been unable to obtain a swift response from Curtis. The last Covid update on its website is almost a month old.


This is just the start. Conservatories are preparing for a term when all tuition will be online and Asian admissions will dry up.


  • Guest says:

    It’s hard even to imagine what Curtis have become, sadly!

  • deborah komins says:

    Shocking, especially when it’s coffers are fuller than most.

    Deborah Komins

  • Doug says:

    Wait, I thought Curtis was funded from an endowment? And with the recent performance of the stock market you would think the portfolio would not have changed much.

    • Bill says:

      Endowments are not necessarily invested in the stock market, nor are all investments in the stock market equally rewarded by movements in the market.

      • Hmus says:

        While this is true, I think Doug’s point is that Curtis has never depended on tuitions to cover any staf expenses, and the lack of physical presence of students on campus for however long the time it is should have no bearing on the *ability* to pay its staff. And if many of the staff in question are those who raise funds for the endowment, it makes even less sense.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Maybe the funds go into another direction and the coronie is merely an excuse. Also in other professions there are moves to do something long overdue but hindered by reason or morals, and now is the time to grab the chance.

  • buxtehude says:

    In line with NL’s prediction that China will shortly, and almost entirely — be supplying Western orchestras, how much longer will it take before our leading conservatories go ahead and move there? Cost considerations alone will require it.

    Nazi conquests led to the emergence of New York as training ground; back then classical institutions served an educated and aspirational mainstream. What reason remains for the continuation there today of Juilliard et al? And how much longer will these be able to squeeze endless financial obligation out of their students?

    • US orchestral musician says:

      Your post sounds like it was written by the racist president of the US.. “China will shortly, and almost entirely- be supplying Western orchestras….our leading conservatories go ahead and move there?”
      Smacks of anti-Chinese sentiment, as regards our orchestras. May the best candidate win, am I right?

      The predecessor of Juilliard was the Institute of Musical Art, founded in 1905. Many/most of its professors came to the US long before “Nazi conquests”. Or is this your anti-Semitic dog-whistle?

      So much right-wing venom in this post. Sad!

      • Grittenhouse says:

        You are blind if you think the invasion of Chinese automaton musicians is good for music, if our own talent cannot get jobs. The Chinese wave of classical musicians is a deliberate strategy that is part of their claim to world domination. Classical music is its victim. They tried to take over the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, too, only they were wise enough to refuse. That is the reality.

      • buxtehude says:

        @ US:
        Nonsense, and offensive! What is the point in having these great big and super-expensive training operations for classical players when the audience to sustain them (and pay off their loans) no longer exists here?

        It’s a practical observation and has nothing whatsoever to do with prejudice or rightwing politics.

        As to the changing make-up of Western orchestras, it was our host NL who predicted the future after traveling in China and seeing the mass musical education going on over there.

        Not just China, Korea too.

        • John Borstlap says:

          When excellent Japanese musicians began to appear in the Western world from the sixties onwards, there was a comparable (little) wave of anxiety – ‘they’re taking-over!’ In the end, there was no reason for worry, because classical music has no ethnic or cultural wall around it.

  • Ben says:

    Hopefully conservatories will cut out useless administrative staff first, as well as trim the pay of professors who charge $500 a lesson down to $400 a lesson.

    Something has to give and that is the way that’ll do the least damage to the music world.

    • Grittenhouse says:

      I don’t know who earns $500 a lesson, if anyone, but I hope they do. A great teacher should be able to make a good living from teaching without working 60 hours a week as my teacher did. The last I heard, Curtis only pays $150 per lesson, and that’s very little if you only have three or four students. I think in New York City, they may be paying $200-250 a lesson. Hardly double that.

  • Frank says:

    All students attend Curtis tuition-free. The students pay nothing, so a drop in enrollment should not affect Curtis’s income. I guess donations have dropped off. I have often wondered whether Curtis is receiving financial support from the Chinese government.

  • Guest says:

    Why pay people to schedule performances that will not take place?

  • Titurel says:

    This story is unclear. Are the sackings indeed due to budget cuts? Or is a general housecleaning going on Chez Diaz? If the latter, why? Needs clarification.

  • Edgar Self says:

    When Mrs. Bok. Josef Hofmann, Efrem Zimbalist, and Rudolf Serkin were in charge, Curtis students paid nothing for tuition, noard or lodging, and got an allowance for personal expenses. I don’t know if that is still so; probably not, but a noble foundation based solely on talent, potential, and ability.

    Curtis always had a strong faculty … Reiner, Horszowski, Philadelphia Orchestra principals, &tc. The Russian model of state support for conservatories has yet to take hold in the US, barring state or municipal subsidies and grants here and there. Eastman, Juilliard, New England Conservatory, Indiana U., and Curtis, North Texas notwithstanding.

    There were internal and personal conflicts as early as the first three named. Gary Graffman was then director or many years. The pinch could bea decline in investment income or endowment, rising overhead costs; otherwise it’s hard to see how the plague would affect the Institute. Anyone know details?

    • anon says:

      Students attend Curtis tuition free. They pay for lodging, food, health insurance and a “comprehensive” fee of less than $2000.

    • John Porter says:

      Eastman, Juilliard, NEC, Indiana, and North Texas are not tuition-free and do not receive much support from their state or local goverments. North Texas and Indiana are different in this regard since they are state institutions, but still receive a fairly low amount of their total revenue from the government.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    Either they must think that these positions can be and will be quickly and easily filled when things return to normal, or they are assuming that things will not return to normal for a long time if ever and that certain situational changes may well be permanent. Cases can be made for and against both. My experience (business not music or education) is that the people in charge of cutting staff tend not to start their cuts with the people in charge of cutting staff.

    A word about charitable endowments. Often these are floated as a dollar figure but in reality are more difficult to value, and it isn’t cash and would not be that dollar amount if it was reduced to cash. Often the donations come with strings attached, particularly if the stock, for example, is of a non-public company and the donor has other reasons for not wanting the stock to be sold. In many cases the donation is of a life insurance policy and the donor prefers not to die at this time, and the institution prefers not to cash it in for the pennies on the dollar they’ll otherwise get some day as a death benefit. And many endowment “dollars” are pledges and still the property of the donor until they make good on their pledge. And things can happen as those institutions that held Bernie Madoff pledges learned.

    This is quite apart from the notion that the concept of endowments is to benefit from the earnings, profits and/or interest, not from selling it off piecemeal (sometimes referred to as “eating the seed corn”).

    • drummerman says:

      I have no idea about Curtis but in my experience as a fundraiser for the arts since 1984, one only lists the value of an endowment in “real dollars?, not including future pledges nor an insurance policy for someone not yet deceased. That would be a classic textbook example of how a nonprofit could get into trouble.

  • Grittenhouse says:

    Curtis is very prejudicial toward certain instruments, piano, violin, and the most-common combinations of the same, while neglecting other instruments and their students. It’s really hard to tell what the purpose of Curtis is now, it seems like a way station for students who don’t think they need to be taught anything more, who just want to perform. The emphasis on cultivating artistry, nurturing talent and careers seems gone, just a focus on the business of music remains.

  • Grittenhouse says:

    Calling the Summerfest a success seems very questionable. How much can a student learn in just one week? Meanwhile, the students use it as a way to connect and pre-audition for the teachers, seeking to game the actual auditions later on.

  • John Porter says:

    Curtis is not fully funded by its endowment. In fact, it has been raising more and more money each year.

  • Fred Funk says:

    Only the beginning. Look for the Longhy School and Boston Conservatory next. Oberlin is headed for it’s $25 million judgement day too. It’s all about the inbreeding in these institutions. They let the assaults and abuse go on for years. And all of a sudden these people have found social justice.

    These schools are bloated with administration, poor instruction.

    BOOM, there goes the allegations, investigations, terminations, resulting in the loss of donations. As an applied science, they’ve got to get away from the abuse, sex misconduct, and social bs. TEACH the Art the students are there for.

    • Paul Schmidt says:

      In case you hadn’t hear, the Boston Conservatory was bought by Berklee. Oberlin had already announced that it would be reducing enrollment in the Conservatory and expanding enrollment in the College. All of the schools will begin instituting cuts, just as most businesses have and will, as the pandemic continues to rage on in the United States. And what makes you think the schools are bloated with administration and poor instruction?

    • Kathryn B says:

      Longy merged with Bard College in 2012

  • E Rand says:

    want to save U.S. Conservatories (and higher ed in general)?? Get rid of the bloated administrative class that has grown exponentially in the recent decades. First to go? Any admins/deans of “Inclusion, Diversity, Equity” and other junk “Critical Theory” blood-suckers

  • BadBonnie333 says:

    Thank god! Finally! Deep cuts!

    People need to play music for themselves, not for sales.
    Conservatory brainwashing has created that frankenstein’ian figure of today “the professional concert artist”.
    Someone who selflessly moves those fingers, to honour the written paper and cheap audience expectations of being thrilled at machine-precision fingerruns and other such stunts.

    Sooner or later it needed to die anyway.