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THE SCOOP | Canadian Violinist Makes Sexual Assault Allegations Against Curtis Institute Teacher

By Anya Wassenberg on July 25, 2019

Lara St John
Lara St. John has gone public with sexual abuse allegations against a former teacher while studying at the Curtis Institute of Music when she was 14. (Photo: Adrienne Lloyd)

Celebrated violinist Lara St. John has shocked the music world — and in particular, Philadelphia’s close-knit classical music community — with accusations of sexual abuse levelled against her former teacher Jascha Brodsky. Brodsky, who died in 1997, was a renowned violinist and instructor at Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, where he taught St. John, and many other students, for half a century.

St. John told a reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer that the sexual abuse was ongoing for a six month period during her student years. When she reported it to Curtis dean at the time, Robert Fitzpatrick, in 1986, she recalls Fitzpatrick making fun of her attempts to insist on justice. St. John quotes him in the interview.

“ ‘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?’ And I agreed with him totally. They wouldn’t believe me.”

Two friends of St. John’s back up her claims that Fitzgerald shrugged off the accusation. Fitzpatrick, who has since retired, denies that St. John made any accusations of sexual abuse, although he admitted she had accused Brodsky — who was then 79 years old — of being what he called “touchy-feely”.

As to whether he followed up on the allegation, Fitzpatrick said that he spoke to Brodsky, although without mentioning St. John’s specific claims. No follow-up was ever done, and Brodsky worked at Curtis until not long before he died in 1997.

Four other women have come forward to make their own claims of Brodsky’s sexual impropriety. One told reporters that Brodsky made an attempt to kiss her in 1988, when she was 18, and he was over 80. Another former student mentioned a similar attempt at a time she was only 16. A third mentions invitations to dinner that turned into a 2-year sexual affair, one she feels was exploitative.

Both St. John and Brodsky have left their mark in the world of classical music. St. John, who grew up in London, Ontario, was a child prodigy who began her international touring career at age 10. She began studying at Curtis in 1985, a year after her brother Scott. Only 4 percent of applicants are accepted at the celebrated institution, whose graduates have played at, and conducted, some of the world’s finest orchestras. St. John recalls that Brodsky took an immediate liking to her, calling her his favourite student. With her interest in Eastern European music, it seemed like a fortuitous association.

She says she had lessons with Brodsky three times per month, and they quickly became evenings at his office in New York City at the New School — which he helped to found. He began by kissing her, then inappropriate touching, and St. John claims he made veiled threats about kicking both her and her brother out of Curtis should she complain. The incidents escalated until he raped her when she was 14. After that, she says she refused to let him touch her.

St. John says the abuse affected her deeply, rattling her mental state. She began to cancel her lessons with Brodsky, and confided in her two closest friends. Together, the three of them went to Fitzpatrick to lodge the complaint.

While he dismissed the allegation, Fitzpatrick says that he asked the wife of Gary Graffman, the school’s former director, to speak to Lara. St. John says Naomi Graffman asked her to tea, and told her she would be getting a new teacher. Graffman also suggested that the matter be put to rest. Naomi Graffman has since passed away, and her husband says he himself was not aware that the allegations involved actual sexual abuse.

St. John says she took to memorizing Brodsky’s schedule in order to avoid running into him in the hallways. By her third year, she had slipped into a depression, and attempted suicide. She left Curtis a few months later at age 17, continuing her studies at the Moscow Conservatory in the then Soviet Union, and ending up in New York City a few years later.

Jascha Brodsky
Jascha Brodsky

While she tried to put the past behind her, St. John says the episode would come back to haunt her every now and then. Naomi Graffman called her in 1995 to reiterate her request to keep it all under wraps, a premise St. John agreed with at the time. Then, in 2012, St. John heard that officials at Curtis questioned why, among all the school’s illustrious alumni, she had never donated to Curtis. She says she sent a fiery email in response, detailing exactly why, although she asked the administrator in question to keep it confidential.

The following year, in 2013, however, the tide turned for St. John when she read an essay posted to Slipped Disc by Fitzpatrick. Titled When Curtis Was Known As The Coitus Institute, Fitzpatrick discusses how the institute went from having a reputation for sexual shenanigans — although he insists not between teachers and students in his case — and talks about the great strides that have been made in a discussion of the abuse of music students by their teachers, offering advice based on his experience. He wrote,

“The following elements are a possible list of suggestions for successfully avoiding and, when necessary, dealing with cases of psychological, physical, and sexual abuse based on common sense and personal experience after almost 30 years at a small conservatory of music in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (USA).”

For St. John, the irony was too much.

“The injustice just came roaring back,” she said in the Inquirer interview. “And there he is, living the high life in Paris, making himself out to be like this savior of students.”

She wrote a detailed letter to the current dean of Curtis, and the institution hired a legal firm to investigate. Fitzpatrick, when contacted by the law firm, denied knowing of any allegations of sexual or physical abuse during or even after his tenure at Curtis, even though he refers to a time when the school was known by the rude nickname in his article. After interviewing Fitzpatrick and Gary Graffman, the investigation was closed with a determination that “relatively modest changes” be made to policies and handbooks.

St. John spoke to the investigator through her husband and manager, Stephen Judson, and the report claims that she did not wish to pursue the matter any further, beyond assurances that Fitzpatrick would never write such an article again. Judson, however, told Inquirer reporters that he told the investigator they would be happy to assist in the investigation, but were never asked.

“I think they were more concerned with, Will there be a police report? Will it go public? Is this in some way going to hurt us legally or economically? Which is unfortunate, because that is not where this was coming from. She approached it with sincerity, and I think their approach has been quite cynical.”

Curtis officials did, in fact, ask Fitzpatrick not to write about child abuse anymore, but he refused, denying any wrongdoing.

St. John told The Philadelphia Inquirer that, with the current social climate, and the tide of #MeToo cases that have exploded in recent years, she felt the time was right to raise her voice again. As she pointed out in an interview, although her struggle for justice has been years in the making, she still occupies a privileged space that many do not.

“I do have means. I do have recourse. I do have resources. How many people don’t who are now in that same situation?”

Brodsky’s family continues to deny any allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct against the former musician and teacher.

Curtis officials have since sent an email to alumni notifying them about the Inquirer story, assuring them about current policies at the school, and asking them not to discuss the matter publicly or on social media.

 

LUDWIG VAN TORONTO

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Anya Wassenberg

Anya Wassenberg is a Senior Writer and Digital Content Editor at Ludwig Van. She is an experienced freelance writer, blogger and writing instructor with OntarioLearn.
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Follow me

Anya Wassenberg

Anya Wassenberg is a Senior Writer and Digital Content Editor at Ludwig Van. She is an experienced freelance writer, blogger and writing instructor with OntarioLearn.
Follow me
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