The Curtis Institute of Music was founded in 1924 to train a new generation of musicians. 

Ever since, Curtis alumni have filled positions in orchestras around the world and headed them as conductors.

This exhibit features the conductors who have led the Curtis orchestra—beginning with Leopold Stokowski, and including every music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra until the present day in addition to many others of international renown. The exhibit also highlights the development of the conducting program at Curtis, led by such luminaries as Artur Rodzinski, Fritz Reiner, Max Rudolf, and Otto-Werner Mueller.

Three early conductors of the Curtis Symphony Orchestra

The early years, 1924–31

The Curtis orchestra met for the first time on November 14, 1924 in the Common Room. By the sixth year of its existence it had performed in the Academy of Music and Carnegie Hall, broadcast on radio, and played for Curtis’s first opera production, Eugene d’Albert’s Tiefland.

The school’s early success was due in part to the close ties between its founder, Mary Louise Curtis Bok, and Leopold Stokowski. Stokowski was keenly aware that educating new talents would benefit the Philadelphia Orchestra. During Curtis’s first three years, he took charge of the Curtis orchestra himself, while all instrumental faculty were members of the Philadelphia Orchestra. “In other words, the students of The Curtis Institute of Music receive the training which has made the Philadelphia Orchestra the foremost in the World,” according to the Catalogue in 1926.

By the end of the 1926–27 season Stokowski left his position as conductor of the Curtis orchestra to the Polish-born Artur Rodzinski, who was then assistant conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Stokowski remained involved, however, and when Rodzinski unexpectedly left for another position he recommended appointing the violinist, composer, and conductor Emil Mlynarski. In addition to leading the orchestra, Mlynarski taught conducting in a new program that Rodzinski had started in 1927. By the time Fritz Reiner took over in 1931, four students had majored in the subject.

Three Conductors of the Curtis Symphony Orchestra

From Fritz Reiner through the 1960s, 1931–68

When Fritz Reiner, the Hungarian-born conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, was looking for a new position in 1931 he seemed the perfect replacement for Mlynarski, who turned out to have problems keeping order. Contrary to his predecessor, Reiner inspired respect and even fear. But the orchestra benefited greatly, and its quality soon attracted notice. Reiner demanded meticulous preparation from his conducting students, too. “You had no right to step up on the podium unless you knew everything about what every member of the orchestra had to do,” according to Leonard Bernstein (’41). “And if you didn’t, God pity you…” Bernstein was one of twelve students who majored in conducting under Reiner. Others included Boris Goldovsky (’34), Vincent Persichetti (’39), and Lukas Foss (’40).

Reiner left Curtis in 1941. Financial constraints had forced Mary Louise Curtis Bok and Curtis’s new director Efrem Zimbalist to cut costs, and the conducting program was discontinued. During the war years, when there were few students, the orchestra was disbanded. In 1945 it regrouped again under longtime violin faculty member Alexander Hilsberg, concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Zimbalist continued to keep orchestra costs down throughout his tenure as director (1941–68). In 1953 Hilsberg was succeeded as head of the Curtis Orchestra by the new associate conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, William Smith, who worked on symphonic repertoire during reading rehearsals. During this period, the orchestra performed only occasionally.


Three Conductor of Curtis

A new era, 1968–85

When Rudolf Serkin succeeded Efrem Zimbalist as director of the Curtis Institute of Music, he asked his good friend Eugene Ormandy, music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra since 1936, to join the Curtis faculty to conduct the orchestra. Ormandy accepted, on the condition that his salary would be donated to benefit students in need. The appointment heralded a new era in which the orchestra performed more frequently. Ormandy also invited guest conductors of the Philadelphia Orchestra to work with the Curtis orchestra, thus starting a tradition that continues to this day. Ormandy, who referred to the Curtis orchestra as “his other orchestra,” remained on the faculty until 1977.

In 1970 Serkin also appointed the German-born conductor Max Rudolf to head the opera department and revive the conducting program. Rudolf appointed a member of the New York City Opera conducting staff, David Effron, as his assistant. When Rudolf left Curtis in 1973 Effron stayed on as opera conductor and also conducted the Curtis orchestra; in 1976–77 he was the orchestra’s principal conductor.

John de Lancie, succeeding Serkin as director in 1977, restructured the orchestra department. In 1980–84 Robert Fitzpatrick, the future dean, helped to lead the orchestra. Max Rudolf returned to Curtis from 1983 to 1986 as head of the orchestra department and conducting. Conducting graduates during this period included Robert Spano (’85), Barbara Yahr (’86), and Michael Stern (’86). Rudolf’s book The Grammar of Conducting is still used at Curtis to this day.

Otto Mueller Conducts The Curtis SymphonyA conducting pedagogue and visiting conductors, 1986-2012

When Gary Graffman became Curtis’s director in 1986 he appointed Otto-Werner Mueller as conductor of the orchestra and head of the conducting department. Mueller would head the conducting program, supported by the Helen F. Whitaker Fund, for 26 years. The curriculum included extensive analysis of scores and orchestration, as well as instruction in conducting and rehearsal techniques. Students gained practical experience through weekly “lab orchestra” sessions and in orchestra performances in the Student Recital Series. The list of conducting alumni who graduated during Mueller’s tenure, many of whom hold notable positions, underlines his influence (browse the alumni database). In an Overtones tribute in 2012, Mueller–who held the Rita E. and Gustave M. Hauser Chair in Conducting Studies and also headed the conducting program at Juilliard–is described as “the most important conducting pedagogue of the last 50 years.”

The Curtis orchestra benefited from Mueller’s guidance during these years; and also worked with many visiting conductors, who led orchestra readings or performances. Reinforcing the Philadelphia Orchestra’s historic ties with Curtis, they included its music directors Riccardo Muti, Wolfgang Sawallisch, and Christoph Eschenbach. Continuing a tradition established by Eugene Ormandy, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s guest conductors also visited Curtis for readings (view excerpts of a reading by Simon Rattle in 1997). Other conductors worked with the orchestra to prepare performances in its annual three-concert season.

The next chapter

Curtis’s new conducting program, with Yannick Nézet-Séguin as mentor conductor, launched in the 2013–14 season—a new chapter in the history of conducting at Curtis and its longstanding relationship with the Philadelphia Orchestra. To read up on that history, come back to the Curtis Archives in 20 years. Or start following that history today!

DISCLAIMER: The images and documents in this exhibit are made available for purposes of education and research. The Curtis Archives has made every attempt to determine the copyright status of materials displayed, but due to the nature of archival materials we are not always able to identify this information. We are eager to hear from any rights owners, so that we may obtain accurate information. Upon request, we will remove material from public view while we address a rights issue.