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.

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.

The image of Tilson Thomas appears on banners that adorn telephone poles and lampposts in the neighborhood of the conservatory's new home. The photograph is substantially larger than life, showing Tilson Thomas' distinguished sweep of gray hair, youthfully twinkling eyes, and winsome half-smile, not so much smug as it is self-assured.

David Southorn practices with the other two members 
of his trio, pianist Teresa Yu and cellist Adelle-Akiko 
James Sanders
David Southorn practices with the other two members of his trio, pianist Teresa Yu and cellist Adelle-Akiko Kerns.
Collin Murdoch, president of the SFCM.
James Sanders
Collin Murdoch, president of the SFCM.

His phantom presence looks on during the "topping off" ceremony at the construction site on a clear March day. The ceremony has brought together the school's benefactors and administrators to sign a white-painted steel beam that will, after the signing and a few speeches, be raised by a crane and dropped into place atop the still-skeletal addition to 50 Oak St. For the event, the paved lot next to the building -- usually used to accommodate lunching ironworkers -- has been swept and prepped to form a makeshift picnic yard. Conservatory brass, donors, and a few public officials wander up in twos and threes, wearing white construction helmets, for champagne and petits fours (decorated with musical notes) under the shade of a pristine catering tent. A quartet of trombones, made up of conservatory students, sweats in the sun as it performs in front of the tent; few of the benefactors pay attention, as the refreshments are quite good and former Mayor Willie Brown has just arrived for a few photos.

After the speeches, when the big moment arrives, the trombone quartet bursts into a fanfare, and the suits crowd to the front of the tent, straining their eyes toward the beam, dangling and rising at the end of the crane. The fanfare bounces and swells as the beam ascends, and as it comes nearer to its destination the four brassy voices end in harmony.

The trombone players look up. The crowd looks up. The beam continues to travel. No one is sure whether to clap, so the leader of the quartet shrugs and signals the group to begin playing the fanfare again. This time the performers play it a little more deliberately, slowing dramatically at the end and looking skyward, as if they might coax the piece of steel into place.

There's a lot of hope embedded in the school's big move -- for better teaching, the chance to wrangle guest conductors and instructors from the pool of musicians employed with the major outfits at Civic Center, and the opportunity to make the SFCM "world class" -- but the effect on student life too often seems like an afterthought, especially at this ceremony.

The trombone quartet finishes playing the fanfare. Silence.A few moments later, the white beam bearing the names of donors finally reaches its mark. Applause.

David Southorn was born in the Bay Area and, according to his own estimation, "got off to a late start" by taking up the violin at age 9. (Some students in the conservatory prep programs started as early as 4 -- rather like Olympic hopefuls.)

"I mean, I wasn't playing the big concertos in high school like some of the kids you hear about," he says, and then adds with a slight blush that his first concerto was a relatively simple (by his standards) work of Mozart.

He is, in most ways, a typical conservatory student -- hardworking, devoted, perfectionist -- but because of his particular talent and drive he may have a stronger chance to perform professionally than other students, regardless of the conservatory's move. ("You could drop a kid like David in the middle of a rural school in Texas and he would succeed," says Mary Ellen Poole, the SFCM's dean.)

Southorn's mother was a singer in the San Francisco Opera chorus, and his father is an Episcopalian pastor. The family (he has a younger sister) moved to the Portland, Ore., area when Southorn was an adolescent. He now lives in the East Bay with friends of his family and occasionally attends the church he went to as a kid. He decided to come to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music because, out of all the schools at which he auditioned -- the Cleveland Institute of Music, the Cincinnati Institute of Music, Northwestern, and a few others -- it offered the most financial aid.

He wakes every morning at 6 and makes his way through Bay Bridge traffic so that he can get a couple hours of practice in before classes and rehearsals start. His instrument, one of the four or so made each year by young German violin maker Anton Springer, is wrapped in green satin when it's inside the small coffin of a case that Southorn keeps slung over his shoulder. He's currently the student of both Camilla Wicks, who is retiring from the SFCM's faculty this year (Isaac Stern called her "the greatest violinist who has ever lived"), and Wei He, one of Wicks' former students.

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