Heart of the City Archives

Colin Murdoch and Mrs. Jaquelin Hume strike a blow for music education in the City.

Music in the City, from sunrise to the Sunset
by Hank Donat

Since the Loma Prieta earthquake, 14 years ago next Friday, San Francisco has hosted a seemingly endless number of ground-breaking and ribbon-cutting ceremonies. Each has marked the construction or reconstruction of a new or venerable institution.

The staggering list of projects, which includes Union Square, Portsmouth Square, Pac Bell Park, Mission Bay, the New Main Library, City Hall, and the Ferry Building to name just a few, will be enumerated often in the coming weeks, as Mayor Willie Brown reflects on the accomplishments of his administration in its twilight.

Brown says he'll show up at the 2006 ribbon cutting for the new San Francisco Conservatory of Music at Civic Center, lest anyone think the $80 million campus at 50 Oak Street was made possible by his successor.

Last week's ground-breaking ceremony for the conservatory project, a block from Van Ness Avenue and Market Street, was unique among such events and was suitably up-tempo.

A hundred people arrived under a tent promptly at the close of business on Monday to celebrate the occasion. A hundred more would arrive shortly thereafter.

The famously tardy mayor was early, arriving only ten minutes after the start of the official program.

Conservatory President Colin Murdoch called the event, "Day One among many Day Ones" for the internationally acclaimed music school, which purchased the site in 2000.

San Francisco Symphony's Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas set the tone. He told the standing-room only crowd that California continues to be the vanguard of culture and that the planned 73,000-square foot facility would be a nexus for future musicians in San Francisco.

The new conservatory will offer twice the space of the current campus, the 1928 building designed by Louis Christian Mullgardt at 1201 Ortega Street.

As the sun began to set, a pink light filled the tent. Murdoch and philanthropist Mrs. Jaquelin H. Hume wowed the audience when, instead of the familiar tradition of turning over a patch of dirt, they raised a mallet and bashed a hole in the wall of the existing structure.

I expected to hear something from the third movement of a violin sonata by Bach coming from the other side of the wall, but there was only dust. In this heavenly pink dust rose a dream of something new made from something old.

Classical guitarist David Tanenbaum exemplifies the masters who teach at the conservatory. New York native Tanenbaum made his debut at the age of 16. His long list of credits includes performances throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe, the former Soviet Union, and Asia.

In 1988, Tanenbaum became the first American guitarist to be invited to perform in China by the Chinese government. He is also a graduate of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

On the TV series Fame, the dance teacher played by Debbie Allen used to say, "You got big dreams? You want fame? Well right here is where you start paying - in sweat."

Willing to start paying in carpal tunnel syndrome, I accepted an invitation to visit Tanenbaum for a class from the master. It didn't matter to Tanenbaum - who teaches experienced students and rarely gives a private lesson - that I had never picked up a guitar.

In the Sunset, the Ortega Street building is a former orphanage characterized by Mission Revival gables and a center tower. It has housed the conservatory since 1956.

Inside, the building is decidedly cramped and institutional but not without its charm. The sound of random strings and chords and voices is a constant.

Tanenbaum is the picture of a music world figure whose cultural experience reads like a map of the world. With his brown curls and naturally tanned skin, the youthful fiftysomething resembles the writer Jerzy Kozinski.

Tanenbaum is a splendid teacher. He is never once impatient or unhappy, even when my so-called music sounds like a duet for Lucy Ricardo and Tom Petty.

An hour later I know the difference between a pluck and a rest stroke, why up is down, how to use the frets, and what makes a $25,000 guitar sound like a $25,000 guitar - plus 15 notes of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Like the conservatory itself, I'm several steps closer to Davies Symphony Hall.

Further proof that if Mark Twain were alive today he'd be edited: Written in chalk on the sidewalk at Polk and Hayes was this take on summer, "The longest ice age I ever saw was 11 weeks in San Francisco."

Not to be missed this weekend are some of San Francisco's best indigenous events of the year.

The 135th annual Italian Heritage Parade starts at 12:30 p.m. at the foot of Jefferson and Stockton Streets in Fisherman's Wharf on Sunday, October 12. This is the city's oldest civic event and the oldest Italian-American parade in the country. When North Beach rolls out its red and green carpet, this parade captures the heart of the city like yet another street fair kabob or macrame stand could never do.

Sunday afternoon will also see the Excelsior Festival at Ocean Avenue and Mission Street. The Excelsior is one of the city's most diverse and under-appreciated neighborhoods. No other festival has Frank Jordan Jr. with his Irish folk band, Culann's Hounds, and DJ DISK teaching kids the art of turntablism known as skratch.

Monday, October 13, the International Indian Treaty Council commemorates 511 years of indigenous peoples' resistance to colonization in the Americas with a sunrise observance of voices, stories, songs, dances, and drums on Alcatraz Island. The first boat leaves Pier 41 at 6 a.m. Tickets are $11 but children under five winters ride free.

Did you remember to vote today? Or did you not recall?

Welcome to MisterSF.com. Please visit the site often to keep in touch with San Francisco, for your own amusement, and to use the Local Joints section as a portal for independent businesses. Keep your money in the neighborhoods... Watch this space for observations, interviews and more from around town. All other sections of MisterSF.com are also updated continually, so come back and watch us grow!

Contact MisterSF.com

Copyright 2003 Hank Donat
mistersf.com home