a close up shot of a musical instrument with keys and strings

A Beautiful Relationship, A Groundbreaking Performance

By Katie Mobley, on

The relationship between Longwood and the Curtis Institute of Music is one of longevity, of a love for artistry, and of dedication to sharing the beauty of the performing arts. It’s also one that we are proud to continue with the upcoming May 12 Curtis Symphony Orchestra performance held here in our Gardens—marking the first time the full Curtis Symphony Orchestra will perform at Longwood, and the only time guests can experience the orchestra in the region before they embark on their Curtis On Tour West Coast engagements. During this May 12 performance, conductor Osmo Vänskä of the Minnesota Orchestra and Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, along with Gilmore Young Artist, winner of Salon de Virtuosi, and Curtis alumna pianist Janice Carissa, lead the Curtis Symphony Orchestra in an evening of Bartók, Tchaikovsky, and Curtis alumna Dai Wei’s Curtis-commissioned Awakening Lion … all amid a picturesque Meadow Garden backdrop.

Located in Philadelphia, the Curtis Institute of Music educates and trains exceptionally gifted young musicians to engage a local and global community through the highest level of artistry. For nearly a century, Curtis has provided each member of its select student body with an unparalleled education alongside musical peers, distinguished by a “learn by doing” philosophy and personalized attention from a faculty that includes a high proportion of actively performing musicians. To ensure that admissions are based solely on artistic promise, Curtis makes an investment in each admitted student so that no tuition is charged for their studies.

Full of interesting and impactful connections, the Longwood Gardens and Curtis Institute of Music relationship dates to an April 1934 performance by the Chester County Choral Society accompanied by the Curtis Institute of Music Orchestra, and then, in contemporary times, a Curtis string quartet in 2004. It goes beyond the practice of holding Curtis student recitals at Longwood, which began in 2010 and continues to this day. It will soon include the upcoming May 12 outdoor performance.

people seated in chairs on a lawn listening to music on a stage

The beauty of the Meadow Garden backdrop can be seen in this 2021 photo of an Orchard performance during our Wine & Jazz Festival. Photo by Scott Hummel.

Among many Curtis–Longwood connections, Curtis alumnus Samuel Barber (Composition 1934) composed his first piece for organ in 1925 at age 25 and dedicated it to Longwood founder Pierre S. du Pont. Curtis alumnus Clarence Snyder (Organ 1942) took over for long-time Longwood organist Firmin Swinnen upon his retirement in 1956 and remained at Longwood until 1978. Today, Alan Morrison, Haas Charitable Trust Chair in Organ Studies at the Curtis Institute of Music co-leads Longwood’s Organ Academy along with Longwood Gardens Principal Organist Peter Richard Conte. Recently, Curtis graduate Joshua Stafford took the Pierre S. du Pont First Prize in the 2016 Longwood Gardens International Organ Competition, while Curtis graduate Bryan Anderson took the Firmin Swinnen Second Prize in 2019, and in June, Anderson will compete in the 2023 Longwood Gardens International Organ Competition.

“Showcasing and supporting the performing arts has always been an important part of our mission to inspire and bring joy to our guests,” shares Longwood President and CEO Paul B. Redman, who was instrumental in forging today’s relationship between Longwood and Curtis. “The Curtis Institute of Music is unparalleled in their dedication to educating gifted artists and we are thrilled to welcome these exceptional talents to our Gardens for what will surely be a memorable performance.” 

an orchestra playing on a wood stage

The Curtis Symphony Orchestra performs at Konzerthaus Berlin in this 2017 image. Photo provided by Curtis Symphony Orchestra.

Pianist Carissa certainly concurs, calling the upcoming performance a “full circle moment that holds a significance that words cannot convey.” A Gilmore Young Artist and winner of Salon de Virtuosi, Carissa made her Philadelphia Orchestra debut at age 16 and has gone on to perform with the Kansas City, Amarillo, Des Moines, Johns Hopkins, St. Peters by the Sea, and more symphonies. Having graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Curtis, she is presently studying at The Juilliard School. This year has a lot in store for her—including performing as a soloist on May 12. “It was only last May that I was bidding farewell to my fellow graduates, donning our caps and gowns and wishing each other the best for the next stages of our lives,” shares Carissa. “As we parted ways that bittersweet afternoon in Rittenhouse Square, I couldn’t help but wonder when our paths would cross again. The universe had a swift answer for me, as shortly thereafter, I was overcome with emotion as I accepted an invitation to perform alongside my alma mater’s orchestra,” she continues.

a person looking off to the right of the camera

“The prospect of making music in this floral utopia is truly beyond my wildest imaginings,” shares pianist Janice Carissa. Photo provided by Curtis Symphony Orchestra.

Looking ahead to her performance, Carissa is eager to explore the acoustics of the open-air environment in Longwood’s Orchard, and she is looking forward to her debut performance of Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in G major, Sz. 95. With all she is looking forward to, she pulls from her strong foundation as a Curtis alumna. “Countless leaps of faith and conversations occurring near and far the piano, I have come to the conclusion that being a Curtis alum means embodying the values of a supportive and encouraging community that empowers individuals to achieve their full potential,” she shares. “What ‘full’ means is a lifelong quest I am excited to embark on.”

The program begins with Awakening Lion, a Curtis-commissioned piece by Curtis alumna Dai. Combining traditional Cantonese Lion Dance elements with Western orchestral music, the piece features the use of unpitched percussion instruments such as Chinese bass drums, which are commonly heard in the accompanying music of the Cantonese Lion Dance. “I aimed to create a sound reminiscent of the traditional Chinese instrument Guquin by having two cellos played with a guitar pick at the beginning of the piece,” shares Dai. “My intention was to connect the past to the future and bring different corners of the world together.”

Awakening Lion draws inspiration from the Cantonese traditional dance of the same name, which tells the story of a creature named Nian who terrorizes a village. The villagers turn to a lion for help. After a fierce battle, the lion wounds Nian, who flees and promises revenge. The following year, the villagers create a lion mask to scare away Nian. “The collaboration in the Lion Dance shares many similarities with that of a symphony orchestra,” shares Dai. “Both require a high degree of precision and coordination among the performers to achieve a cohesive performance. When writing the piece, I reflected on the fact that under that giant beast mask are ordinary people like you and me. Although we may not be familiar with the story of the Awakening Lion or the battle with Nian, we all face our own battles … this inner strength is present in everyone, regardless of where we come from, who we love, or our gender. The lion that we raise up with all our inner positive strength and optimism when facing overwhelming forces is the embodiment of Awakening Lion.”

head shot of someone with black hair and in a tan jacket looking at the camera

Composer Dai Wei. When thinking about the upcoming performance, Wei notes the “unique opportunity to showcase the connection between music and nature. The open-air setting provides a natural acoustic space that allows the music to blend with the surrounding environment. The audience can enjoy the beauty of nature while listening to the music, creating a unique and immersive experience.” Photo by Sha Tao.

Conducting the orchestra is Osmo Vänskä, music director of the Minnesota Orchestra for 17 years and music director of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra since 2020. Recognized for compelling interpretations of repertoire of all ages and an energetic presence on the podium, his democratic and inclusive style of work has been key in forging long-standing relationships with different orchestras.

a person holding an orchestra conductor wand in a black suit looking at the camera

Conductor Osmo Vänskä. Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

With the Minnesota Orchestra, Vänskä has undertaken five major European tours, as well as historic trips to Cuba in 2015, at the invitation of the Cuban Ministry of Culture—the first visit by an American orchestra since the two countries announced steps to re-establish diplomatic relations—and South Africa in 2018, as part of worldwide celebrations of Nelson Mandela’s Centenary. The latter was the first visit by an American orchestra to the country and drew together South African and American performers in musical expressions of peace, freedom, and reconciliation on a five-city tour that followed a successful return to London’s BBC Proms.

Other highlights of his tenure in Minnesota include 20 album recordings, leading and mentoring young composers during the annual Composer Institute seminar and conducting its Future Classics concerts, performances at New York’s Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center and Chicago’s Symphony Center, and various educational and outreach projects in Minneapolis and other cities across the United States.

We are thrilled to welcome the Curtis Symphony Orchestra to our Gardens May 12, as well as honored to continue our long-standing relationship with Curtis. Join us for this spectacular performance—tickets are on sale now.

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