Sydney student the first Australian woman accepted to prestigious US music program
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Sydney student the first Australian woman accepted to prestigious US music program

Ivy League universities such as Harvard and Yale might be difficult for Australian students to get into, but they are nowhere near as difficult as Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music, one of the most selective colleges in the world.

But Elizabeth Younan, 24, has defied the odds to become the first Australian woman admitted into Curtis' prestigious postgraduate program for composers.

Elizabeth Younan is the first Australian woman to be selected for the most selective music program in the US.

Elizabeth Younan is the first Australian woman to be selected for the most selective music program in the US.

Photo: Louie Douvis

Ms Younan, who recently completed her Master of Music (Composition) at the Sydney Conservatorium, said she was drawn to Curtis’ philosophy of encouraging students to use music as a means of communication.

“I think music is about communication because it has the capability to offer the world joy as we focus not on the man-made boundaries that divide us, but the innate qualities that make us human,” Ms Younan said.

“The thing I am most excited for with Curtis is just being wholly consumed by music with like-minded, diligent and devoted peers. Everyone who studies composition gets to write for the performers there, and really work with them, and communicating and interacting with them is one of the most exciting things.

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“I feel honoured to be the first Australian female composer to go to Curtis, and I hope that this encourages and inspires other female composers to apply.”

Ms Younan is only the second Australian composer to be accepted into Curtis, where 95 applicants were trimmed to two for its composition program, starting in September.

The university, which offers fully-funded places to all students to ensure they are accepted on artistic merit alone, boasts a long list of famous graduates including Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein and Gian Carlo Menotti.

Carl Vine, Ms Younan’s lecturer and mentor, said he encouraged her to apply to Curtis after spending the past four years observing the way she “lived for music”.

“You get a lot of students who are [studying music] because they think they should do it, or because it is something that their parents are encouraging them to do, but they don’t really have the vocation,” Mr Vine said.

“Elisabeth is the opposite: she lives to make music, to enjoy music, to study music. That is everything she wants to do.”

Mr Vine, who also serves as the artistic director of the country's oldest independent professional performing arts organisation, Musica Viva, said he was also struck by the unique way Ms Younan thinks about music.

“As a composer, you are building castles in the air, building architecture that doesn’t exist. Everything she constructs has this unique melody behind it and she creates this architecture just from melody,” he said.

“And [her compositions reflect] a distinctly personal relationship she has with every instrument she is writing for.”

Ms Younan said her goal is to create works that connect with as many people as possible.

“Music speaks to all because it encapsulates the human condition and transcends time and space. So to know that something I have created has spoken to someone on a personal level is the ultimate goal I want to achieve with composition,” she said.

Elizabeth Younan’s Piano Sonata, premiered by Joyce Yang for Musica Viva's 2018 International Concert Season in July, can be heard on ABC classic FM.