Just in: Gary Graffman quits in Curtis clearout

Just in: Gary Graffman quits in Curtis clearout


norman lebrecht

August 28, 2021

The Curtis Institute’s longstanding director has resigned from its roster, saying that at 92 he can’t travel from New York any more and is not interested in teaching online.

Graffman has been connected to the school for 80 years. The present director Roberto Diaz has made no comment.

But something’s afoot. The composer Jennifer Higdon has also resigned after 27 years and the former Philadelphia Orchestra principal oboe Richard Woodhams has been fired.

School starts Monday. It will be a different place.

Among Graffman’s many achievements was the discovery and nurturing of Lang Lang.


Peter Dobrin has more here.

UPDATE: Jennifer Higdon has posted: As many of you may have heard, I have stepped down from my position at Curtis. After 25 years it seemed like the right time, as I’ve recently started taking care of an aging parent, and I’m trying to balance a lot of rescheduled concerts, so my time has become difficult to manage. I am most grateful for are all the students that I’ve had the privilege to teach…whether it was composition, chamber coachings, or the 20th Century Music History/Theory class (truly the most fun I’ve ever had teaching…at some point, everyone at Curtis came through that class). THANK YOU to all of my students—you have taught me so much and I’m grateful for our shared journey.


  • M McAlpine says:

    Something sinister afoot? When a guy of 92 retires?

  • drummerman says:

    He can’t be faulted for not wanting to “schlep” from New York to Philadelphia at his age. There’s no reason to link this to the firing of Woodhams and, unless you have spoken with Ms. Higdon directly, you shouldn’t automatically link her decision to either of these guys.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    Something seems to be afoot at Curtis but I also take Gary Graffman’s reasons for leaving as being real and sincere, not a smokescreen.

    Interesting coincidence that I have just recently been re-reading his “I Really Should Be Practicing.” Any young pianist would benefit from reading that book, even at the cost of putting their Hanon aside for a few hours.

    The Curtis he writes about so knowingly (and hilariously) must seem very distant to him now, as would the Steinway company of today, and so much else. Hard to think of anything that’s improved ….

    • Amos says:

      David, does he discuss in the book how, in retrospect, his injury might have been prevented? His recordings of the Prokofiev 1st and 3rd with GS/CO are imo superb. On an unrelated note given your previous comments about Robert Marcellus I wanted to mention that yesterday I re-listened to the 1960 Tch 5th recording and his solos epitomize the qualities that made the orchestra extraordinary.

      • David K. Nelson says:

        Amos, Graffman’s book is silent about the problems. He does write about his several years of coaching from Horowitz (an influence which at least some armchair experts have “blamed”) but, no, the physical problems are not brought up or even alluded to, other than that the entire book is a looking back with varying degrees of nostalgia as if from the perspective of a career that was over, which as it happened was not the case, but at the time (1981) may have seemed like it.

        I certainly agree of course about the sterling qualities of Robert Marcellus’s clarinet in those great Cleveland Orchestra recordings.

        An odd full-circle is Graffman’s first recording of Prokofiev #3 with the San Francisco Symphony under Enrique Jordá for RCA and how the blistering comments (“the saddest state of musical affairs I have encountered in any American or European city during the almost 50 years of my active conducting career”) about that orchestra by George Szell when he came to guest conduct basically ended Jorda’s tenure there. I suspect Graffman was happy to have the chance to remake the Prokofiev for Columbia with Szell. Nowhere is Jordá mentioned in the book.

        • Amos says:

          Please keep in mind that Szell’s comments about Jorda only came about due to the interference of the then orchestra program annotator and newspaper reviewer Alfred Frankenstein. Szell had left town claiming illness rather than conducting a 2nd week with the SFSO but AF contacted him and “told him” he needed to invite EJ to conduct the CO to make amends. Then all hell broke loose. The SFSO hired Krips and improved markedly.

      • Von Carry-on says:

        Graffman seems to have been the only Vengerova student to have developed hand problems. Her rock solid, thorough method of technical training served many keyboard masters well. But whenever painful playing arises, it’s incumbent on the pianist to take a step back and analyze the growing problem – because it won’t just go away. Graffman must have felt warning signs – but sadly he didn’t pay proper attention to them.

  • MacroV says:

    So we have:

    – a 92 YO man who lives in New York who no longer wants to commute to Philadelphia.

    – A composer with an aging parent to look after and apparently pieces getting played who doesn’t have time at this point to attend to Curtis duties.

    – A renowned oboist also widely known for being difficult with students who didn’t have his contract renewed.

    I say it’s Professor Plum in the Kitchen with the Rope.

  • H Rosen says:

    Utterly unbelievable. 2 days before the school year starts, and two of the really great figures in American music have left. Surely Ms Higdon would have done so sooner had things been ok?
    What are they losing? In Gary Graffman, a legendary performer with a unique understand of how music and a career should be put together. Surely at his age, other possibilities could have been found; a room at “safe” Juilliard say..
    And now who is left on the Composition Faculty. Not much.
    Curtis really was the greatest..it is sliding fast into nothingness. Something needs to be done. Roberto Diaz’s departure *might* be the answer if the board is strong enough to see that the school would be better run by someone with openness and vision.

    • N.M.Z. says:

      From my discussions with different musicians, many of them Curtis alumni, there seems to be a general consensus that Curtis is going through some sort of crisis, with many staff members also having left or been pushed out in the middle of the pandemic.

      The sexual abuse scandal that Curtis was involved in, brought against them by former Curtis alumnus Lara St. John, was already an indicator of something that was not right in the institutional culture at Curtis, as it took them way too long to deal with the accusations in an open and transparent way, something they only did after ignoring and demonising Ms. St. John for far too long and trying to silence all staff and alumni about commenting or speaking out about this disgraceful period in Curtis’s history. Thanks to Ms. St. John’s perseverance and threats of legal action, only then did Curtis do the right thing and open an investigation by an outside firm specialised in dealing with these matters. What is most surprising is that Roberto Diaz maintains his job, after first trying to make Ms. St. John persona non grata and foolishly having Curtis send out a message to all alumni and staff not to speak to the press or anyone about any cases of sexual abuse over the years at Curtis. Only when that ill-conceived move was exposed did he change the school’s attitude and offer to investigate and allow others to speak out about the sexual abuse at Curtis.

      So, now reading about these departures and hearing the remarks of Curtis alumni friends and remembering how poorly Curtis initially handled the sexual abuse scandal, indeed leads one to believe that something at that school is just not right. I always believe that, in the end, everything will come out and if something is not right at Curtis, it will eventually come out and hopefully a change in leadership will take place to get that school on the right track.

    • BigSir says:

      Was Curtis ever a destination for composers?

  • fflambeau says:

    92 is way too old for a big commute. Higdon was also there a long time. These seem like normal changes that someone wants to make an event of.

  • Sanda Schuldmann says:

    I can’t help but wonder how Mr. Graffman feels about you listing his finding Lang Lang among his achievements!

    • Petros LInardos says:

      My best guess is that Gary Graffman is proud of Lang Lang, doesn’t see him in black and white (unlike many of us in this space), but doesn’t want to be defined by one student. Graffman has taught more than one generation.
      Here is a link to a Graffman interview in excellent series Living the Classical Life

  • Plush says:

    Eschenbach discovered Lang Lang, not Graffman.

    • Brian from D.C. says:

      “Gary Graffman was the perfect teacher for me at that point. I started developing rapidly with him. Later I met Christoph Eschenbach. He belongs to the old tradition. This collaboration was a life-changing experience.” – Lang Lang

  • Nick says:

    No wonder! Mr. Graffman understands very well what Curtis and other institutions have become!! At 92 one should not deal with this nonsense!

  • Andrew Clark says:

    As a former music student who studied in Philadelphia, no not at Curtis. I knew a lot of Curtis graduates. Woodhams is arguably the greatest oboe player in the Universe but he was cruel and nasty to his students. I actually had tea with Gary Graffman once and he was every bit the gentleman that his reputation alludes to, to a complete non-Curtis stranger. The classical world is entering the 21st century, not by choice btw. More is coming

  • Chicagorat says:

    I wonder what our beloved world-renowned Italian Maestro must be thinking right now:

    “Finally. She was lucky to teach at Curtis. She was there only because she was a woman and a lesbian.”

    There is another place where a clear-out is badly needed.

  • Orchestral Musician says:

    What I find strange is that these retirements/dismissals/resignations have been announced so close to the beginning of the fall semester. As of today, Mr. Woodham’s replacement has not been announced. If I were an oboist enrolled at Curtis today, without knowing who my private teacher will be, I would be seriously concerned, to say the very least!
    Has there been a non-publicized announcement?
    Also, suddenly loosing one of the finest music theory teachers in the world at this late date is a bug surprise.
    This could all be coincidence, of course. But these are all big changes for a great school.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    Thank you for your efforts in the arena of classical music.

  • Timothy Hess says:

    The resignation of Gary Graffman is going to be an extreme loss and to The Curtis Institute of Music!

  • GUEST says:

    El Jefe Diaz is paid north of 550K USD annually to run a school of c.175 students. He knows how to charm those old Philly dowagers!

    • Bill says:

      500+ employees to herd as well. And yes, keeping the donations coming in is an important part of the job.

      • Simon Correll says:

        500 employees for 175 students…? That’s bizarre.

        • Bill says:

          Juilliard has 2841 for 939 students. Same ratio, more or less, although Curtis is slightly leaner.

          It appears you don’t have a good grasp of how many employees there are who are not teaching lessons. That’s bizarre. No doubt the number of hospital employees who are not doctors or nurses would also come as a surprise.

        • Steggy says:

          That’s because it isn’t so. There are about 50 full-time staff and numerous adjunct academic and performance faculty (certainly not 450). And the notion that Diaz has any clue as to how the place runs, let alone runs herd on the staff, is laughable.

  • Nick Gunning says:

    One of the finest pianists of the 20th century. Among other things, paired with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra revived all three Tchaikovsky piano concertos to a high degree of accuracy. After developing nerve damage in one hand worked in teaching and several contemporary pianists benefitted including LangLang and Yuyah Wang.

  • justsaying says:

    I think the problem is that Curtis is no longer allowing students to go to teachers’ homes for lessons, and Graffman had been teaching at his home in New York. From students I’ve heard he is still a wonderful teacher. I can understand the policy given the liabilities schools face if one bad apple does something wrong. But seems foolish not to make an exception in the case of a brilliant teacher who is 92 and needs a walker to get around.