After graduating, Gary Graffman began a celebrated solo career, but never lost touch with Curtis
After his graduation from Curtis in 1946, Gary Graffman went on to enjoy a long and celebrated career as a concert pianist, performing with the world’s leading orchestras and conductors. Yet despite great successes, vast distances, and intervening years, he never fully lost sight of his alma mater. Years later, when Curtis once again beckoned its former student, the connection was re-established, resulting in one of the longest faculty tenures in the school’s history—38 years—and a lengthy and progressive directorship lasting 20 years.
When Gary Graffman won the coveted Leventritt Prize in 1949, his career as an international concert pianist took off almost overnight. Through years of hectic travel and a demanding performance schedule, his ties to Curtis remained intact. Most notably, he maintained a close relationship with piano faculty member Rudolf Serkin, and many summers found the two men collaborating, performing, and teaching together in Vermont at the Marlboro Music Festival, which Serkin had co-founded in 1951. Some years later, during Serkin’s time as Curtis’s director, he invited Graffman to play a recital for the school’s 50th anniversary. Upon hearing that the Curtis performance would be just a few days after Graffman played a recital in New York, Serkin replied, in complete seriousness, “That’s wonderful! Your Carnegie concert will be a perfect tryout for Curtis!” To an outsider that comment may seem lighthearted, but Graffman later admitted that, despite the Carnegie performance, he nevertheless experienced substantial nervousness upon playing for the Curtis audience.
Fortunately Graffman was eventually able to overcome his Curtis-induced nerves: He accepted a position on the piano faculty in 1980. His decision to turn to teaching was precipitated by an injury to his right hand that rendered him unable to play the two-handed literature. This event marked not the end of his career but rather the start of an unexpected new chapter. For, after serving on the piano faculty for six years, he was named Curtis’s new director in 1986, becoming president as a well in 1995.
Over the next 20 years, Graffman placed an indelible stamp on the school, both physically and ideologically. Whether it was extensive campus renovations, inviting world-class conductors and musicians to work with the students, or establishing a reciprocal educational arrangement with the University of Pennsylvania, Graffman actively oversaw, and sought to improve, all facets of the Curtis student experience. Still, Graffman adhered to a traditional view of the school. In an NPR interview given just before his departure as Curtis’s head in 2006, Graffman offered his view of Curtis’s perceived elitism: “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.”
Gary Graffman has been a part of the Curtis community for 83 years. He has seen the school through the lens of a student, teacher, administrator, and mentor, giving him unmatched insight into what makes it tick. However, it was perhaps his time as director that brought his most marked contribution as he moved Curtis away from insularity towards engagement, creating a more modern music conservatory delicately balanced with Curtis’s storied past. Graffman himself perhaps put it best when, during that same NPR interview, he was asked to articulate a one-sentence basic philosophy for Curtis:
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Kristina Wilson / archivist / Curtis Archives
For more information on Curtis history, visit the Curtis Archives.