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Young Alumni Fund Advances Artistic Visions

Grants distributed to eleven recent graduates range from $2,000 to $10,000

Congratulations to the first-ever grantees of the Young Alumni Funda new annual grant program dedicated to supporting young alumni of Curtis! Selected from 41 proposals through a competitive and anonymous review process, these awards will support community and non-profit organizations founded by alumni, production of new commercial film and audio recordings, training in non-musical skills beneficial to the field of music, and general artistic development, such as audition travel, promotional materials, and instrument purchases. Many of the projects address challenges borne from the ongoing pandemic or give voice to historic or deeply personal stories from people of color. Each recipient will receive advice and support from mentors within the Curtis community. Get to know the grantees and their projects below!

Our graduates are doing incredible and innovative work. We are proud to help and support young alumni as they enter the next chapter of their musical journeys,” said Shea Scruggs (Oboe ’04), Curtis’s director of institutional research and musician experience and chief enrollment officer. “We recognize the effort required to put forward a thoughtful proposal and are grateful to everyone who applied in this first cycle. The number of outstanding proposals we received considerably outpaced the available funding this first year. I especially want to thank the alumni who served on our evaluation panel, participated in the planning sessions, and donated to the fund. They devoted valuable time, expertise, and resources to Curtis, and this new initiative would not be possible without their contributions.”


Tessa Ellis

Tessa Ellis has been fascinated by the sound of the trumpet since she was four years old and heard the instrument for the first time. Her work as a Philadelphia-based freelance trumpeter and teaching artist is inspired by her lifelong drive to create new and nuanced sounds. Ms. Ellis is a founding member of the Arcana New Music Ensemble and the Opus 5 Brass Quintet and has enjoyed genre-bending performances with Hanson, Amos Lee, Square Peg Round Hole, and Caracara. She studied with David Bilger at the Curtis Institute of Music, where she earned a Bachelor of Music and a Community Artist Fellowship diploma. As an orchestral musician, she has performed with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, the Lancaster Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra 2001, and Symphony in C.

Ms. Ellis was a finalist in the 2016 Ellsworth Smith International Trumpet Solo Competition and has won first place in two divisions of the National Trumpet Competition. In addition to performing, she is a faculty member at Settlement Music School, where she teaches trumpet and Children’s Music Workshop. With this grant funding, Ms. Ellis will enter an ADHD coach training program to serve neurodivergent musicians and better advocate for neurodiversity inclusion in classical music.


George Xiaoyuan Fu

Chinese-American pianist George Xiaoyuan Fu is establishing an international reputation as a captivating performer with distinctive intelligence and sensitivity. Mr. Fu has performed as a piano soloist with orchestras such as the National Symphony Orchestra, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, North Carolina Symphony, Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, and the Curtis Symphony Orchestra; and has collaborated with conductors such as Michael Tilson Thomas, Stefan Asbury, Kensho Watanabe, Vinay Parameswaran, and Jonathan Berman. He has appeared at international venues such as the Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, Wigmore Hall, Kings Place, and Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood; while his live performances and interviews have been featured on several public television and radio broadcasts around the world.

Passionate about the creation of new work, Mr. Fu is an active composer and performer of contemporary music, having collaborated with composers Krzysztof Penderecki, Harrison Birtwistle, George Lewis, Unsuk Chin, Tansy Davies, Phil Cashian, Matthew Aucoin, and Freya Waley-Cohen. Interested in collaborative work, he is a conductor, an active chamber musician with duo partners and ensembles around the world, and collaborator with artists of many disciplines. Mr. Fu currently teaches at the Royal Academy of Music.

Mr. Fu’s funded project is Solitude with Schubert, a documentary following him and soprano Lotte Betts-Dean that examines how their experience relates to musicians’ lives during the worldwide pandemic. Together they prepare for an upcoming concert of Schubert’s music, which explores themes of solitude and death while holding hope for life.




Joshua Halpern

Joshua Halpern has appeared on stages around the world as a soloist, chamber musician, and orchestral principal cellist. As a chamber musician, he has collaborated with artists including Jonathan Biss, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Roberto Díaz, Viviane Hagner, Gary Hoffman, Kim Kashkashian, Anthony McGill, and Itzhak Perlman; and has appeared at music festivals including the Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute, the Perlman Music Program Chamber Music Workshop, the New York String Orchestra Seminar, the Taos School of Music, La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest, Musikiwest, and Krzyżowa-Music. In 2020 he performed as cello of the Rolston String Quartet and during the 2019 season he served as guest principal cello of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, with whom he toured Germany, Taiwan, and China.

Mr. Halpern completed post-baccalaureate studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied with Carter Brey and Peter Wiley. At Curtis he performed throughout the United States, Europe and Latin America with Curtis on Tour, and was principal cello of the Curtis Symphony Orchestra during the 2016–17 season. As an undergraduate at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, where he studied with Desmond Hoebig, he won the Shepherd School Concerto Competition.

As a teacher, Mr. Halpern has presented master classes throughout the United States and South America and has taught at Curtis Summerfest and the Green Mountain Chamber Music Festival. He serves on the faculty at the Brooklyn School of Music.

In 2018 Mr. Halpern curated a solo tour across Colorado to bring classical music to unexpected places, including the state penitentiary, small-town saloons, and bicycle shops. Since then, he has continued bringing music to unique spaces around the country, most recently through his Cultural Caravan project, for which he will receive grant funding to support a 2022 festival. The Cultural Caravan nonprofit connects performing artists with local business venues in Boulder, Colorado to revitalize the community in the wake of the pandemic.



Natalie Helm

Natalie Helm joined the Sarasota Orchestra as principal cello during the 2016–17 season. She previously served as a member of the Des Moines Metro Opera Festival Orchestra and as the cello fellow and principal cello of the Montgomery Symphony Orchestra.

Ms. Helm has appeared as a soloist with orchestras around the country, including the Dana Point Symphony; the Louisville and Colburn orchestras; and the World Youth, Montgomery, and Richardson symphony orchestras. She has performed with the American Contemporary Ballet, the Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program, and the Yamaha Music Foundation.

Ms. Helm has won top prizes at several international competitions including the Lennox International and Blount-Slawson young artists competitions, and the Kingsville Young Performers Competition; and has appeared on NPR’s From the Top.

A native of Louisville, Ms. Helm received her Bachelor of Music degree from the Curtis Institute of Music in 2011 and her Artist Diploma from the Colburn School in 2014. She plays on a Raphael Di Blasio cello from 1803.

As the founder of Upward Notes, Ms. Helm’s funding will support the ongoing work and increased outreach of the four-year-old non-profit. The mission of Upward Notes is to bring classical music out of the concert hall and into the community while teaching and fostering well-being for the audience and performer. Through the organization, a roster of over 50 volunteer musicians performs for previously underserved audiences in jails, sex-trafficking safe-houses, foster care locations, homeless shelters, and substance addiction centers in several cities.


Oliver Herbert

Gaining attention for his unique ability to connect with audiences through performance, Oliver Herbert is quickly building a reputation as an artist with a distinct voice and individual style. The recipient of a 2021 Avery Fisher Career Grant, Mr. Herbert’s recent solo appearances include debuts with world renowned ensembles including the San Francisco Symphony, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Warsaw Philharmonic, and Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.

Mr. Herbert is equally at home playing well-known works and exploring uncharted musical territories. The 2021–22 season marks the beginning of several ambitious projects, including the complete Bach cello suites at Capital Region Classical and the complete Beethoven sonatas at Guarneri Hall in Chicago. He will also premiere a commissioned work for multitrack cello and electronics and explore the music of Venezuelan composer and cellist Paul Desenne. Additional highlights include concerto performances with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, New World Symphony, and Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra; and performances with violinist Alexi Kenney and pianist Eric Lu for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society.

As a chamber musician, Mr. Herbert has participated in leading music festivals including Caramoor, ChamberFest Cleveland, Krzyżowa-Music, La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest, Marlboro Music Festival, Music in the Vineyards, Nevada Chamber Music Festival, the Ravinia Festival, and the Verbier Festival. He studied with Carter Brey and Peter Wiley at the Curtis Institute of Music and with Clive Greensmith at the Colburn School.

In June 2020, Mr. Herbert released his debut album, Frame of Mind: Fauré and Janáček, with pianist Xiaohui Yang. Additional recording highlights include a release of Haydn's Cello Concerto No. 2 with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony. His grant funding will support the creation of a new album for solo cello comprised entirely of works by living composers, including fellow Curtis graduate Chelsea Komschlies (Composition ’18).



Lyman McBride

Lyman McBride is a freelance musician and software engineer based in Utah. Having trained at some of the country’s finest music schools, he brings his passion for excellence, pedagogy, and service to all aspects of his life.

Mr. McBride is a winner of the International Trombone Association's Larry Wiehe Trombone Competition and has appeared as a soloist with the Brigham Young University Wind Symphony. He has toured throughout Europe and Asia with the Curtis Symphony Orchestra, the BYU Wind Symphony, and BYU’s Synthesis ensemble. Mr. McBride has been a member of the National Repertory and Brevard Music Center orchestras; and performs regularly with the Utah Symphony and the Timpanogos Big Band, among other ensembles.

As a teacher, Mr. McBride has served on the faculties for BYU Musicians’ SummerFestival and Institute and the Morse Summer Music Academy at the Yale School of Music. He previously taught group lessons in secondary schools around New Haven, Connecticut and currently teaches private lessons throughout Utah. Mr. McBride holds performance degrees from Brigham Young University, the Curtis Institute of Music, and the Yale School of Music; and has studied with Mark Davidson, Nitzan Haroz, Scott Hartman, and Matthew Vaughn.


Ashley Milanese

Italian-American soprano Ashley Milanese is emerging as an exciting young presence in the operatic world. In 2021 she appeared as Giannetta (L’elisir d’amore) and Annina (La traviata) with Teatro Regio Torino. 2018–19 season highlights included Komische Oper Berlin’s touring production of Barrie Kosky’s Die Zauberflöte, singing the role of Erste Dame across Australia and New Zealand, and at the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York; and serving as artist in residence with Teatro Regio Torino.

Recent North American roles include Fresquita (Carmen), Erste Dame (Die Zauberflöte), and Barbarina (Le nozze di Figaro) with Opera Philadelphia, where Ms. Milanese was an Emerging Artist from 2016 to 2018. She has participated in summer festivals and programs including Wolf Trap Opera Studio and Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. Symphonic performances include operatic selections with the National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic and Mainline Symphony Orchestra, Faure’s Requiem with the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra, and Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 with the Allentown Symphony Orchestra.

Passionate about contemporary music, Ms. Milanese has collaborated with composers Kevin Puts, Rene Orth, Tobias Picker, David T. Little, Daniel Schnyder, and Nico Muhly. She has covered lead roles in the premieres of David Hertzberg’s The Wake World and Missy Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves, and originated the role of Chan Parker in workshops of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird in 2015. Ms. Milanese studied at the Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute of Music, where she received her Bachelor of Music, Master of Music, and Artist’s Diploma.



Sonora Slocum

Sonora Slocum, principal flute of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, has appeared with the Philadelphia Orchestra and as guest principal flute with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and the Philharmonia Orchestra of New York. She has performed under conductors Christoph Eschenbach, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, Sir Simon Rattle, Edo de Waart, Otto-Werner Mueller, John Williams, and David Zinman, among many others.

Summer festival appearances include the Lincoln Center Festival, Strings Music Festival, Twickenham Fest, Frankly Music, and the Lakes Area Music Festival. She attended Music Academy of the West, the Pacific Music Festival, and the Aspen Music Festival and School. In 2019, she was a featured soloist at the National Flute Association’s Gala Concerto Concert in Abravanel Hall. Her publications include the collection French Flute Music and an upcoming compilation, Moyse Selected Exercises and Etudes, both printed by Hal Leonard.

Ms. Slocum has conducted numerous master classes throughout the country, including at the Curtis Institute of Music, Carnegie Hall’s NYO2, DePaul University, New Jersey City University, and the National Flute Association’s Orchestral Audition Competition. She is a faculty member of the Curtis Mentor Network and served on the faculty at Curtis Summerfest.

This funding will provide production and promotional support for her recent recording of the Mozart Flute Quartets with members of the Dover and Escher string quartets, recorded in Field Concert Hall at the Curtis Institute of Music. The album will be featured this fall in the PBS series Black Nouveau, which celebrates trailblazers in Milwaukee’s African American community.



Jahleel Smith

Jahleel Smith is acting bass trombone with the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra. He has also performed with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the Malaysian Philharmonic, the Louisville Orchestra, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and the Classical/Pops All-Star Orchestra in Barbados.

Mr. Smith holds degrees from the Curtis Institute of Music and Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. While attending IU, he was a two-time finalist for the school’s brass concerto competition and a finalist in several professional auditions including those with the San Antonio Symphony and the U.S. Army Concert and Ceremonial Bands.

Mr. Smith has attended the Pacific Music Festival, Boston University’s Tanglewood Institute, and the Cleveland Trombone Seminar, where he was awarded the Jiggs Wigham Scholarship for best under-21 audition recording. He was a finalist for the Edward Kleinhammer Orchestral Bass Trombone Competition at the International Trombone Festival and placed third in the S.E. Shires Solo Competition at the Southeast Trombone Symposium.



Joshua Stewart

In recent appearances, American tenor Joshua Stewart joined celebrated conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra on tour in the United Kingdom, Paris, and Germany as tenor soloist in Tippett’s A Child of Our Time. In the United States he performed in Das Paradies und die Peri with conductor Paolo Bortolameolli. Enjoying a long collaboration with Peter Sellars, Mr. Stewart performed as The Shepherd (Oedipus Rex) in a production directed by Sellars and conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen at the Baltic Sea Festival in Stockholm, Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, and Royal Festival Hall in London. He made his debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic as Narrator (Sellars’s Das Paradies und die Peri) with conductor Gustavo Dudamel.

Previous season’s highlights include the roles of Zinovy (Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk) and Lazarus (world premiere of Giorgio Battistelli’s Wake) with Birmingham Opera Company; Antenore (Zelmira) and Giove (Le nozze di Teti e di Peleo) at Rossini in Wildbad; Trin (La Fanciulla del West) at Hamburg State Opera; Belmonte (Die Entführung aus dem Serail) at Opéra de Lausanne and Opéra de Fribourg; Don Ottavio (Don Giovanni) at Toledo Opera; and Arturo (Lucia di Lammermoor) at Opera Carolina.

Mr. Stewart is a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music and a former member of Munich’s Bayerische Staatsoper Opernstudio, where he appeared in productions by Christoph Loy, Richard Jones, Constantine Trinks, Kent Nagano, Dan Ettinger, and Maurizio Benini. With a background in jazz, he has performed the title role in Charlie Parker’s Yardbird with the opera companies of Arizona, Atlanta, Madison, and Seattle.

With this award, Mr. Stewart will commission a song cycle based on his original text “Man Without a Home,” which reflects on the stories that shaped him as a young Black man living in America and Europe.



Tania Villasuso

Tania Villasuso, born in Narón, Spain, finished her clarinet studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in 2019, where she studied with Anthony McGill, principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. During her studies, she participated in international festivals, including Music Academy of the West, Music From Angel Fire, the Aspen Music Festival and School, and the Aurora Chamber Music Festival.

She has collaborated with conductors Gustavo Dudamel, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Juanjo Mena, Stéphane Denève, and Giancarlo Guerrero, among others; and has performed with artists such as Jonathan Biss, Ida Kavafian, Daniel Matsukawa, Peter Wiley, and Jennifer Montone. In June 2019 she was part of a chamber music tour to Latin America, offering concerts and master classes in Mexico, Peru, and Chile, with violist Roberto Díaz and pianist George Xiaoyuan Fu.

Winner of the first prize at the Intercentros Melómano Interpretation Contest in 2012, Ms. Villasuso has performed as a soloist with the Madrid Metropolitan Orchestra and the Vigo 430 Orchestra. She has also been part of the Salvador Seguí Symphony Orchestra, the Young Orchestra Castellón Symphony, and the Castellón Lyric Orchestra. She previously studied with Venancio Rius, Yehuda Gilad, Jose Miguel Marti, and Francisco San Ramon, and is currently pursuing a master’s degree at Rice University with Richie Hawley.




About the Young Alumni Fund

The Young Alumni Fund provides recent graduates of Curtis—those who completed their studies within the last ten years—with financial awards to remove barriers to their success as emerging performers and advance their personal artistic visions. The fund is the latest initiative from Curtis demonstrating an intentional focus on the “musician lifecycle” and easing the transition from student to professional life.

YAF was developed by Shea Scruggs and the Alumni Relations Office in collaboration with design thinking consultant Ramy Nassar, management consultant Kristan Cybriwsky (Flute ’90), and an advisory group of twelve Curtis alumni drawn from a broad range of class years and career types.  

Applications for the next cycle of grants will open in Spring 2022. Learn more and apply at Curtis.edu/YAF.

Curtis is proud to support the Young Alumni Fund and is grateful to those alumni and friends who helped underwrite this year’s grants. If you would like to join us and support the YAF, please click here. We are thankful for your generosity and commitment to supporting incredible projects like the ones outlined above. All donations are fully tax-deductible to the full extent of the law. Thank you.


About the Musician Lifecycle

As Curtis approaches its centenary in 2024, it is prioritizing the needs of the musician lifecycle: the shifting artistic and economic experiences of artists both as they prepare to enter Curtis and build their careers following graduation. Committed to fostering meaningful relationships with its musicians even after they matriculate, the school’s key initiatives have included Curtis on Tour, which provides experience, income, and visibility for young artists through professional touring engagements across the globe; Emergency Relief for Curtis Alumni (ERCA), which funded over $500,000 in one-time direct transfers to alumni severely impacted by the cancellation of performances in the pandemic; and expert-led webinars to strengthen social media and financial planning skills among alumni, in addition to the Young Alumni Fund.