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Top Music School Finds Sexual Abuse Allegations From Violinist 'Credible'

An undated portrait of the violinist Lara St. John.
Martin Kennedy
Courtesy of the artist
An undated portrait of the violinist Lara St. John.

About 35 years ago, violinist Lara St. John — then just 15 years old — went with two friends to the dean of the school she attended, Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music, to say that her private teacher, the famed violin pedagogue Jascha Brodsky, had sexually abused her on multiple occasions.

The then-dean, Robert Fitzpatrick, brushed her off. Over the ensuing three decades, St. John, now 49, went back again and again to Curtis officials — six times in all — between 1986 and 2019, asking that her allegations be heard and acknowledged. They never were in any substantial way — until her account was corroborated and published by the Philadelphia Inquirer last summer.

In that investigative story, St. John said that Brodsky, who died in 1997, had repeatedly abused her over six months, beginning with inappropriate touching and ending in rape.

St. John also told the Inquirer that not only had Fitzpatrick not taken her allegations seriously, but that he told her: "Oh, for God's sake, who do you think they're going to believe? Some 15-year-old kid or someone who has been here for decades?"

In the aftermath of the Inquirer story's publication, Curtis officials sent out an email to alumni requesting that they refrain from any public discussions of her accusations.

On Tuesday evening, however, Curtis' board of trustees released the full report of an independent investigation conducted by the law firm Cozen O'Connor, which Curtis hired last November. The investigators found St. John's story to be credible.

On Wednesday afternoon, St. John told NPR in a Facebook message: "I'm very grateful to Cozen O'Connor for their in-depth report. It is, of course, satisfying to me that Curtis has finally admitted to decades of wrongdoing, to me and others, but it took me 35 years. I came forward to them again and again, and even last summer when it went public thanks to the Inquirer, they tried to silence their alumni. It took me holding their feet to the fire publicly for them to even deign to commission this external report. So, a victory, yes, hopefully for the generations to come, but for me, a bit Pyrrhic."

In a statement accompanying the publication of the investigators' report, the Curtis board said: "The board recognizes and profoundly regrets the incalculable physical and emotional toll that Ms. St. John suffered as a result of her Curtis experience. As the report makes clear, at multiple points along the road of her harrowing journey, Ms. St. John provided opportunities for Curtis and its leaders to respond meaningfully and provide her with support and a chance to aid in her healing. But in each instance the school fell short in its attempts to respond to her concerns and instead reinforced the perception that it did not care about what happened to her."

The school pledges that is taking several steps to ensure its students' well-being, including offering them access to counseling, hiring an outside hotline for students and employees to report sexual abuse; hiring a Title IX coordinator; and expanding an existing fund "in recognition of the extraordinary courage demonstrated by Lara St. John" to aid "young alumni who may be experiencing obstacles of any kind in the pursuit of their musical careers."

St. John's story is the most public. But the report also delineates separate accusations of sexual, emotional and verbal abuse made by 20 other students between the 1960s and the 2010s. These were not corroborated by investigators, but the report says, "They provide insight into the culture and climate at Curtis as it relates to the power differential between a major faculty [member] and a student."

Many people, even voracious classical music fans, have never heard of Curtis; it doesn't have the name recognition of other institutions, like The Juilliard School.

But among classical music performers, Curtis is legendary — and legendarily hard to get into. Only about 5%of applicants are admitted each year — at any given time, the student body is only about 175 students in all. Its alumni include such world-famous artists as composers Samuel Barber and Leonard Bernstein; pianists Lang Lang and Yuja Wang; and violinist Hilary Hahn, among many others. Moreover, tuition is free for all students, making studying there even more of an appealing proposition.

Even in such a high-stakes environment, Curtis seems to have added more stresses to the burdens of its young students. The report itself states, "Students remained at Curtis at the discretion of their major instrument teacher" and, moreover, that there was a "real threat that [a student] could be dismissed for any reason at any time."

In their report, the Cozen O'Connor investigators wrote that St. John reported that when she tried to hold Brodsky off, Brodsky "threatened to have her and her brother [Scott, another violin student at the school at the time] expelled from Curtis."

St. John was assigned to a different private teacher. She struggled at Curtis, and eventually attempted suicide in her third year. She wound up leaving the school at age 17.

The investigators report that Brodsky was "admonished" by Fitzpatrick and Gary Graffman, the school's then-artistic director (and a notable pianist and teacher in his own right), but Brodsky remained teaching at the school until shortly before his death.

Graffman told investigators that his reaction would have been different if he had realized that St. John's accusations included rape, but also that it was "a different era."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.