Making Conservatories Less Conservative

Founded in 1917, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music is still the only major independent conservatory on the West Coast. Its President Colin Murdoch, was appointed in 1992, and that same year the Conservatory celebrated its 75th anniversary with distinguished visiting faculty that included John Adams and Elliott Carter. Composers John Corigliano, Witold Lutoslawski, Ursula Mamlok, George Perle, and Lou Harrison, who lives in the San Francisco area, have lead other recent master classes. A festival in honor of Harrison took place recently, and periodically throughout a full school year Harrison spoke, gave master-classes and his music was programmed often.

The school is quite small with only about 300 students, and there is a large faculty. Every student gets a lot of attention. An effort is made to provide a nurturing and supportive atmosphere. When I spoke with Conrad Susa, he told me that he was astounded at the difference in his experience at San Francisco Conservatory as compared with Juilliard. He said there is much less pressure, but the same high standards.

In addition to Susa, the composition faculty includes Elinor Armer, David Conte, Andrew Imbrie, and Alden Jenks. Student composers study with one teacher at a time, but they have no restrictions and change at will. Some performance is expected from student composers, and advanced keyboard skills are a prerequisite for admission.

Student composers are encouraged to look for opportunities outside the school, and the city of San Francisco provides them. A dancer from the San Francisco Ballet, Laurence Peck, recently collaborated with a number of composers at the Conservatory. Some student composers have worked on independent film projects, and the school even has facilities for editing sound and images together. The electronic composition studio provides access to the latest equipment. Some student composers have taken the initiative and found work writing incidental scores for theaters around San Francisco, and music for local church choirs. The Conservatory chorus is under the direction of composer David Conte. He and Conrad Susa are active choral writers, and they encourage students to write for choir.

Guitar faculty member, David Tanenbaum, is also a big advocate of new music, and he performs it regularly. Among the composers that have written works for him are Hans Werner Henze, Terry Riley, Aaron Jay Kernis, and Roberto Sierra.

There are some interesting new music groups in the San Francisco area. Common Sense Composers Collective founder Dan Becker, a San Francisco alumnus, has also founded a group called Ear Play that is devoted to new music. Composers Inc., is also based in San Francisco. Student composers attend concerts by these groups, but I was told that other students are “up to their ears in their own departments,” so they typically don’t attend.

Conservatory composers are encouraged and expected to make friends with instrumentalists at the school. It is important for them to do so because they usually must negotiate their own performances. Student composers do have opportunities to hear their works performed with the New Music Ensemble, which is the main outlet for students who wish to perform new music. Members of this group perform 20th Century “classics” as well as new pieces by living composers, and there is a minimum of four concerts each year solely for performance of students’ works.

Nicole Paiement is the conductor of the New Music Ensemble, and when I spoke with her on the phone she seemed to be a charming and dynamic advocate for new music. She wants to expose performers of the Conservatory to a vast variety of repertoire and a wide range of styles. She hopes to create a connection in the minds of performers and audiences alike linking the past and the new. For her, “new music” is an interesting term because any music can be made to be seen as new if one looks at it in a certain way. Some old scores have unexpected things to reveal to us, and may be more fresh than more recent scores. Although she sometimes honors composers from the past that have something new to say, her goal is to see living composers become as popular as the composers of a typical “classical” concert. She wants to make people comfortable, and she wants to make people think about what they are hearing. She often tries to introduce a theme in her programs, and thereby makes connections between the pieces. For example, an upcoming program will explore the connections between the music of Bali and the music of Northern Californian composers. Of course, the Balinese influenced music of Lou Harrison and Colin McPhee will be played, and a real gamelan ensemble will be brought in as well. In a heartening note, Paiement said that she prefers to put the music of student composers into each of her concerts, which is certainly preferable to always ghettoizing their music. She is also trying to be active in getting the ensemble outside of the school and into the community. An upcoming concert featuring Gorecki, George Perle, Liberman and a student composition will take place at a local church, and will feature music inspired by religion or by church acoustics. She also plans to collaborate with a local dance troupe in the next season. Her next step will be to introduce a pre-concert talk before each concert.

In addition to concerts by New Music Ensemble there are other more informal readings that take place each semester that are available to student composers. Also, the opera department sometimes gives readings with piano or small ensembles of opera scenes written by students and faculty. In addition, the occasional contemporary opera is performed with full orchestra, but the choices tend to be rather tame. Recent performances have included Menotti‘s The Medium, and his familiar Amahl and the Night Visitors, Carlisle Floyd‘s Slow Dusk, and faculty composer David Conte’s The Gift of the Magi.

Although I was told that the Conservatory Orchestra is a very busy ensemble and that their main priority is to help students learn the standard orchestral repertoire, there are some opportunities for students to hear their music done with orchestra. The orchestration class culminates in one reading per semester. And there are another readings, of students’ works each year.

The Conservatory does seem to pay attention to its composer alumni. Nicole Paiement wants to commission a few works by alumni from the Conservatory for her New Music Ensemble. In addition, a yearly competition exists for registered students and alumni, the winner of which gets not a reading, but a full performance with the Conservatory orchestra. Recent graduates often come back to the Composers Forum, which is a seminar that brings together the entire composition department. When recent alumni attend they can discuss new works and their experiences of life outside academia. Composers from outside the school are also sometimes invited. These visits are available to other students outside of the composition department, but I was told that the Conservatory makes no effort to expose these visiting composers to the local community.

When it comes to the Conservatory’s community interaction, I was left confused. The official word is: “For over twenty years, the Community Service Program has taken music into schools, hospitals, retirement homes, children’s facilities, and other places where people of limited means and mobility are seldom reached. Approximately 250 performances are presented through this program each year.” The Conservatory claims to present at off-campus performances at numerous venues. According to information on the Conservatory’s website more than 26,000 people each year attend Conservatory performances, many of which are free. However, when I spoke with faculty composer Conrad Susa, he told me flat out that the Conservatory makes no special efforts to attract the community to the schools’ concerts and events. He explained that because the school in not in the Civic Center, residents of the city would have to go out of their way to get to the school, which is located in the somewhat remote Sunset District area.

Another problematic situation is that Jazz and World Music are nowhere to be found in the curriculum. Despite this some composers are still accomplished Jazz players, and it has been suggested that one of these students, Brent Goodbar, teach a course on Jazz and improvisation, which initially will be open just to composers.

In any case, the school does seem to have a good record with children’s education. Approximately 450 children and teen-agers receive music instruction in the Conservatory’s Preparatory Division and through Summer Music West, a program for young musicians. And of special interest for advocates of new music is the four and a half-week program called “Composition Intensive” for students aged eight to twenty. This program is designed to aid budding young composers, and culminates in a concert of their music. There is additionally an annual competition among composers at the Conservatory to write children’s music. Although not every composition student at the Conservatory is interested, some have apparently come up with simple yet interesting compositions.

I must note that when I spoke to Conrad Susa he repeated many times that performance students at the San Francisco Conservatory are busy, and they were certainly not there to study and play the music of their time. It is more important for the students and for the school that they perfect their techniques and learn the standard repertoire. This is a disheartening attitude, to say the least, especially when coming from a composition professor.

From Making Conservatories Less Conservative
by Stefan Weisman
© 1999 NewMusicBox