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.

Of the total cost, $15 million comes from the sale of bonds and $65 million from private sources, who have contributed nearly $50 million so far and will, according to Murdoch, almost certainly come through with the rest. The most generous donors already have spaces in the new building that bear their names: the Kimball Green Room, in honor of Mr. and Mrs. William Kimball, and the Osher Salon, honoring Bernard and Barbro Osher, whose names also adorn a sculpture garden in the city's new de Young Museum, a handful of medical research centers around town, and a center for religious pluralism in Jerusalem.

With such deep pockets behind him, Murdoch is free to pursue his vision for the school's future, one in which his students become more professionally competitive. "In order to be prepared to play in a big orchestra, they need to be performing very big orchestral works now: Mahler, Bruckner, Beethoven's Ninth. Right now, that's simply not possible. If we did Beethoven's Ninth, the chorus would have to sit on 19th Avenue."

Today and earlier, during the speech at the topping off ceremony, Murdoch often mentions how synergy with other performing groups is a key reason for the move.

"The opportunity for interchange for all of those organizations is phenomenal, and it was clearly one of the objectives in selecting that location," he says. "The profile of the institution will rise considerably." Murdoch also notes the increase in popularity of the San Francisco Symphony and the celebrity status of its conductor, Tilson Thomas.

"I think he has quite a bit of bearing on our success," Murdoch admits, noting that Michael, as he calls him, visited the mayor to lobby on behalf of the conservatory and has presided over certain school events. But that "bearing" may be more wishful than practical: After more than a month of repeated requests, the conductor was unable to provide any comment for this story.

"It's the kind of situation where your friend moves into your neighborhood," says Karen Ames, the S.F. Symphony's director of communications. "Do you hope that you'll have dinner more with them after they move? Of course. Is that going to happen for sure? Not really. We love the conservatory and are excited about it moving down here, but that synergy is their goal, not ours."

"I wonder a bit about whether the administration of SFCM is moving partly as a symbolic move into a more competitive world," e-mails Star Holder, a freshman French horn player. "But my hope is that the administration really makes an effort to preserve that supportive, family feeling as they are attempting to move into a more large-scale arena."

That arena is one dominated by East Coast schools that the conservatory competes against for students, just as SFCM grads compete for jobs -- Juilliard, the Cleveland Institute of Music, and, in particular, Curtis. Within the 25 North American orchestras, 226 members -- or about 15 percent -- are Curtis-trained, 72 of them holding top chairs. Almost half of the members of the Philadelphia Orchestra are alumni of Curtis.

But such high placement rates are rare in the classical world, and those schools' educational model -- which focuses on the single-minded dedication and discipline of practicing one's instrument, to the exclusion of other areas of study that might be more practical in today's job market -- is becoming more and more of a liability. According to Jack McAuliffe, the chief operating officer of the American Symphony Orchestra Guild, the supply of students coming out of top music schools is far too great for the demand created by the ever-shrinking number of professional symphonies.

"It's a different situation for these kids than it was 20 or 30 years or even a generation ago," McAuliffe says. "Back then, you had fewer schools and more professional opportunities, so if you trained at a really top place in a metropolitan city, there was a good chance that you would be able to work in a professional orchestra in that city. Now, things are much different. Last year [Boston's] New England Conservatory graduated, what, 40 violinists? There hasn't been a single violin opening in Boston for the last two years."

"There is a greater and greater number of really strong conservatories turning out extremely talented musicians," says Brent Assink, executive director of the S.F. Symphony. "What is becoming challenging for that group of people is that the size of the audience is not growing significantly or proportionately to support the music that those people are playing. But yet people who play it are so passionate about it, they want to find other ways to do it. But even if they don't necessarily find their way to a professional orchestra, they find other ways to express that passion."

"Making a career in music is not a pretty picture; it's a very difficult picture," admits the SFCM's Murdoch. "And it takes a great deal of courage in order to start that journey at the age of 5, as many of them do, and continue on to 18 or 22. And yet for them, they have to do this. This is what is singularly important to them, and they are prepared ultimately to accept failure if failure should come their way. But they have to do this."

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