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.

Last year, Southorn sat in the back of the orchestra, a position usually relegated to lesser musicians, but after a year of ardently following the conductor's instructions, he moved up to the top of the section. When asked what he likes to do that is unrelated to music, he thinks for a moment, smiles sheepishly, and responds, "Does going to see the symphony count?" He has a 4.0 grade point average and practices his violin about 40 hours a week, and his goal is simple: "Play in an orchestra. I'd rather just do chamber stuff, but you kinda need to play in an orchestra to make a living." Southorn doesn't acknowledge other options for his future, even if the statistical likelihood of playing violin in a full-time, professional orchestra is about one-third that of an NCAA Division I linebacker playing football for a full-time, professional team.

A few days after the topping off ceremony and a few miles from the site of the new building, Southorn sits in a classroom at the conservatory's current campus, going over Antonín Dvorák's "Dumky" Piano Trio No. 4 in E minor with the other two members of his trio, cellist Adelle-Akiko Kerns and pianist Teresa Yu. It's a slightly manic piece that alternates melancholy sections with brisk Slavic-themed dances. Within the world of chamber music, it's extremely well known. The trio will perform this piece in a couple of months in Washington, D.C., by special invitation from the Kennedy Center, but it also has to execute the challenging work tonight, at one of the 300-plus free concerts the conservatory offers to the public every year.

It's about five hours before the concert, and no one feels ready. The players speak to each other with a kind of urgency, go over difficult sections of the piece, and break to scribble notes on their sheet music. During these short conversations, Southorn is very much the new kid; he's often corrected or overruled by the two other members of the group, who are both graduate students at the conservatory and have played in ensembles together for years. But when the three of them play, the dynamic changes: Southorn, whose instrument often provides the dominant voice to the ensemble, is very much a leader.

"Let's do it again," Southorn says after rehearsing a particularly difficult part that requires him and Kerns to play together in perfect synchronicity. They start over, and their quiet unison -- a passage of only a few bars, a detail that will be lost in the chaotic, emotionally explosive landscape of the piece -- is slightly out of sync and rhythmically frayed. Without bringing the violin down, without slouching, Southorn repeats, "Let's do it again." The rehearsal continues in this way for 10 minutes. When asked later about the practice, Southorn, now without his instrument, explains his fixation with the few bars of music: "That passage is so beautiful. It's so beautiful. There is only one way you can play it. It has to be perfect." To perhaps everyone except Southorn and the other members of the group, it already is.

In 1917, two pianists named Ada Clement and Lillian Hodghead opened the Ada Clement Piano School in the remodeled addition of Hodghead's parents' home on Sacramento Street. The humble operation had three pianos, four studios, two blackboards, and 40 students. Because it was the only institution of its kind on the West Coast, enrollment increased rapidly, and in 1923 it changed its name to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. With early students like violin virtuosos Isaac Stern and Yehudi Menuhin and famous composer Ernest Bloch as an early director, the school saw its international reputation grow quickly. It relocated from Sacramento Street to the corner of 19th Avenue and Ortega Street in the Sunset District in 1956, and according to Collin Murdoch, its current president, it had outgrown the Mission-style building (originally built as an orphanage) before it moved in.

Sitting with his legs crossed and his hands folded in his lap, Murdoch articulates the school's history in the tones of an academic giving a lecture. His white eyebrows dart above the heavy black rims of his square glasses at the points of the story he seems to feel most ardently about.

To him, moving out of the Sunset is imperative to the future of the institution.

"Fundamentally, the need for a move was qualitative," Murdoch says. "Simply put, there were not enough practice rooms for the students, so they can't practice here, so they cannot become as good as they might become. There are not enough classrooms, so that things that needed to be taught could not be taught. We cannotbe a truly world-class institution here."

In 1999, at the height of the dot-com bubble, Murdoch and the school's board of directors made the same speech to potential money-givers as they presented an enterprising plan to move downtown.

"Early on in this project a lot of people thought, 'Eighty million dollars?'" Murdoch recalls. "'The Conservatory of Music? You have to be kidding me.'" Yet as of press time, the fund-raising for the project is on schedule.

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