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The World on a String 

As the San Francisco Conservatory of Music moves to fancy new digs, its students struggle with a shrinking professional marketplace.

Wednesday, Apr 20 2005
A strange transformation happens to David Southorn just after he puts his violin under his chin and just before he begins to play. Without the instrument, the slight, fair-haired 20-year-old student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music seems like many college sophomores: slouching, slightly gangly, and a little shy. But with it, he changes quite suddenly. First he rolls his shoulders around in their sockets to ease tension, then he sits up straight at the edge of his chair, places the instrument below his chin, and takes a deep breath. Not a second later, when his bow meets the string and the reverberation explodes out of the violin, Southorn -- or at least the sound he's making -- takes over the room.

"Would you like to hear a little something?" he asks, then begins an enthusiastic onslaught. Today Southorn is practicing under the harsh lights of a classroom at the conservatory, playing material -- mostly the loud and fast parts -- for an upcoming recital. His tones bounce off the tile floor, the blackboard with its permanently painted music staff, and the metal chairs in which he sometimes slumps during the school day. The music is deafening, but Southorn has his eyes closed and doesn't seem to mind; he has a fondness for playing at full volume. The way the notes echo makes it seem like there are three of him performing at once; it's not until he stops for a moment and the ring of the instrument fades that the sounds of other people practicing throughout the cramped, worn-down building enter the room.

Southorn takes the violin from his neck and holds it loosely at his side -- again becoming the sheepish kid -- and looks expectant. "What do you think?" he asks.

Just as the violinist does when he picks up his instrument, this young musician's future is about to change. Come fall 2006, Southorn's school is moving from its current address in the Sunset District to an $80 million complex in the Civic Center area, in the hope that the new digs will help establish the conservatory as one of the top music schools in the country. Southorn, one of its most promising students, may know that the move won't affect his nearly impossible dream of being a professional violinist in the way that administrators are promising, but he hasn't given it much thought: After all, playing violin has been his main focus for almost half his life.

Given the poor odds of a performance career in a diminishing professional field, the future of students like Southorn is as much of a rough sketch as the construction site at 50 Oak St. The arcane system of conservatory education floods the tight market with one fairly unemployable graduating class of single-minded violinists and bassoonists and flutists after the next, and audiences for classical music have been shrinking for years. As the teachers and administrators of the SFCM prepare for this move, they also have to prepare pupils for what conservatory President Collin Murdoch calls "very, very high-risk career goals." The school cites increased synergy with the performing groups based at Civic Center as a key reason for the move, but more than the new location, facilities, or interaction with downtown organizations, the success of these students relies on the conservatory's ability to adapt its curriculum to the realities of professional music today -- and, perhaps, to help students like Southorn redefine what they see in their own futures.

A few steps from the discordant intersection where Oak Street, Market Street, and Van Ness Avenue meet, there's a small building of sandy brick and vaguely neoclassical columns currently under renovation, encased within a grid of steel beams.

Built in 1914 by the San Francisco Archdiocese as the Young Men's Institute and later known as the International Center, the structure is in shambles -- its cavernous ballroom gutted, its interior rooms imaginable only through the marks where walls once stood. Stretched across the beams that hold the exterior facade in place is a mesh net to protect those below from falling debris; beneath it the facade still bears the image of two young singers, frozen in the throes of an operatic moment. A posted announcement states that this building will soon house the San Francisco Conservatory of Music; its slogan calls the campaign "The Future of Music."

By autumn of next year, the $80 million facelift at 50 Oak St. is scheduled to be complete, and the SFCM will move from its overcrowded campus in the Sunset District to one of the most state-of-the-art training facilities for young classical musicians in the country. With acoustically immaculate practice rooms and three recital halls that promise to be the best in San Francisco, the new facility will change the culture and reputation of the school -- and the character of our classical music community. The new location, scant blocks away from the city's cultural heart, is an address that school officials promise will make for closer relationships with the professional ensembles of the Civic Center, including the San Francisco Symphony, which in recent years has risen to become one of the most well-regarded, financially successful municipal orchestras in the United States under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas, credited by many as the most important American conductor since Leonard Bernstein.

The school's 2004-2005 course catalog explains the move directly: "The Symphony, Opera and Ballet, which present the highest quality performances (and provide future career opportunities for Conservatory graduates), host the finest performers and performing groups from around the world."

By drafting the rising national profile of the San Francisco Symphony and its cherished leader, conservatory administrators hope to give their students the same kinds of benefits offered by Old Guard, elite institutions like New York's Juilliard School, Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music, and the Cleveland Institute of Music, all of which have intimate ties with their famed hometown orchestras -- and woo prospective students by touting better orchestral placement rates for graduates.

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Nate Cavalieri


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