If you choose a tuba player as your president, you’d only expect him to be happy announcing his conservatory’s brand new record label, debuting with a reimagining of one of the LPs he had most treasured as a student, long ago. But that’s not the only piece of news that the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s David Stull has to share over a recent lunch.
“The name of our new label has not as yet been disclosed,” says Stull, smiling broadly. “But the first album, which we recorded at Skywalker last summer, is by something called the National Brass Ensemble, members drawn from the top symphony orchestras in the U.S. [and from SFCM faculty]. Back in 1968, there was a legendary recording [on Columbia] of the music of Giovanni Gabrieli, and I grew up listening to it. My own [Oberlin College Conservatory] teacher, Ron Bishop from the Cleveland Orchestra, played on it, and I also studied with Abe Torchinsky from the Aspen Festival, who also played on it. So our idea was, let’s do this again 50 years later.”
The bounty of other good news is the sort of thing that drew Stull to SFCM from Oberlin, where he’d served as associate dean and dean, starting 15 years after his own graduation. “This has been an opportunity to define what conservatory education should really be,” Stull declares. “And there’ll be a new program this Fall, which we’ve just approved, for which we’re creating what we call ‘curated clusters.’ Our students will have access to world-class scholars in a whole range of disciplines, teaching courses related to what the students are doing in music.
“For example: Let’s suppose that in chamber music or orchestra, we’re focusing on Ravel, Debussy, and Satie, analyzing their work in theory class. Then we might invite, as a visiting scholar, a person who’s focused on Impressionism, or Gertrude Stein. With the Rubin Institute of Music Criticism [hosted by SFCM last November], we formed alliances with Oberlin, Stanford, and Yale, and when faculty from those institutions go on sabbatical, we’re going to invite them for a semester. How do you develop the critical thinking skills of students? With this, we’ll have the latitude to run an interdisciplinary curriculum, which every college dreams of.”
The curriculum is also being further fitted to the state of and demands of art in the contemporary world. “We announced our new technology program for film scoring and sound design last year, and the first entering class arrives in the Fall of 2015,” says Stull. “Corporations like Electronic Arts and Sony have gotten behind it and will be providing students experience in those organizations. We’re also developing a full-on business curriculum that’s a year long, based on how people think about training CEOs in Silicon Valley. If you come together as a string quartet or any combination and want to launch that ensemble, it’s just like a startup. We’ve started several of these courses, and over the next few years will flesh out the program entirely. "We’re also developing a full-on business curriculum that’s a year long, based on how people think about training CEOs in Silicon Valley. If you come together as a string quartet or any combination and want to launch that ensemble, it’s just like a startup."
“Also, all our students will be participating in what we call the ‘Winter Experience’. The idea is, with the January term, for them to explore interests or paths they imagine will immediately follow graduation, bringing together what they know about themselves, what they do best, their business skills, their sense of adventure, their sense of imagination and enthusiasm, and their capacity to think about executing all those things together at the highest level. This is education for life, in that they’re as well-equipped, and in my view far more equipped, than any student coming out of a college or university, to tackle anything they face.”
SFCM will also be expanding into a genre new to the curriculum: jazz. “We’re going to be announcing a jazz program very soon, with SFJAZZ as our immediate partner,” says Stull. “The SFJAZZ Collective [an all-star professional ensemble] will be our faculty. Our students will have side-by-side performances with the Collective over in the SFJAZZ Center [a few blocks away], and to rehearse there. It’ll be unique world-wide as a direct educational partnership with a major presenting organization, driven directly by the artists in that organization. And it will be lifting off within the next two years, and possibly next year.”
Earlier this week, the San Francisco Chronicle broke news of the location of a new SFCM residence hall, to be set up on property acquired across from Davies Hall on Van Ness Avenue. “We expect it to be completed within the next five years, and between 280 and 320 students will live there,” Stull says. “But we have the luxury of time. . . because this Fall, our students are moving into a building at Ninth and Mission called The Panoramic, and we have a five-year lease.” In dealing with the current residents of the Van Ness property who are not connected to SFCM, “our reputation is paramount, and anything we’d do will be with exceeding sensitivity to the community,” Stull insists. In dealing with the current residents of the Van Ness property who are not connected to SFCM, “our reputation is paramount, and anything we’d do will be with exceeding sensitivity to the community,” Stull insists.
In fact, Stull views the function of SFCM within the Civic Center neighborhood as “a scale model for the rest of the world.” That’s already manifest as “terrific opportunities with the Symphony and the Opera, both of which are great neighbors, and we harness their presence in the education of our students in unique ways.” The Opera Orchestra initiated free concerts at SFCM, and “coaching and teaching staff at Merola and Adler teach for us, as well as do 28 musicians from the Symphony, who often play side-by-side with our students. Rehearsal schedules for these musicians are demanding, and they’re able to come around the corner quickly to work with us. It provides additional income for those musicians, and one of our goals is to use artists here with the major ensembles, so we can help support the ecosystem of the Civic Center.”
Josè Maria Condemi, a former director at Merola and Adler, has just joined the SFCM as Director of Opera, and L.A. Philharmonic principal Tom Hooten has been added to the trumpet faculty. “It’s a way of keeping in-town and close to the Opera someone they like to use, which makes it far more possible for them to call upon him and for us to build relationships through mutual employment,” says Stull about Condemi. “And Tom is very brilliant about all the aspects of being a successful artist.”.
Staying friendly with the wider community, “the vast majority of our performances are free, so we don’t present a cost barrier to hearing great music,” Stull points out. “And it’s an important access point to the Civic Center, because if someone can come and get inspired by a Conservatory performance, maybe they’re then going to want to see the Opera or the Symphony.”
As for that new record label and its debut release, close to Stull’s tubist heart, he notes that aside from Symphony trombonist Tim Higgins’ resetting of a collection of Gabrieli canzones, madrigals, and magnificats, the disc will include a brand new fanfare, Music for Brass, composed and donated by an enthusiastic John Williams. The Gabrieli material, debuted in performance at the Green Music Center in Sonoma last June, will join the Williams’ material in a roll-out of the new label at Symphony Hall in Chicago on September 20, with a possible tour of the National Brass Ensemble to follow. Stull will be there. And his so-far unnamed label will then set itself, he promises, to "projects that wouldn’t otherwise be produced because the economics don’t exist to support them."