A Brief History of the Conservatory

In 1917, local pianists Ada Clement and Lillian Hodghead opened the doors of the Ada Clement Piano School. Located in the remodeled home of Lillian’s parents, the school began with three pianos, four studios, two blackboards and forty students. Enrollment grew quickly and recognizing the need for a music conservatory on the West Coast, the school incorporated in 1923 as the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

In 1924 the eminent composer Ernest Bloch was engaged to teach a five-week summer course. The course was a resounding success and Bloch was soon hired as Director, beginning his tenure the following year. Bloch served as Director for five years, where his musical vision, international reputation and skills as a teacher helped implement a tremendous expansion for the school. When Bloch left the Conservatory in 1930 to compose full-time, Ada and Lillian resumed the leadership of the growing institution.

The first faculty chamber group, the California String Quartet, was formed in 1926. In 1948, the internationally renowned Griller Quartet established a summer school at the Conservatory, attracting students from across the United States. The ensemble returned for three more summers and served on the faculty for many years. The renowned Alma Trio began a summer residence program in 1952, and the ensemble’s pianist, Adolph Baller, subsequently joined the Conservatory’s faculty.

After 14 years as Chairman of the Music Department at UC Berkeley, Albert Elkus came out of retirement in 1951 to become Director of the Conservatory. One of his first priorities was to find the school a new home. In 1956 the Conservatory moved to 1201 Ortega Street – a 1928 Mission-style building.

Musicologist Robin Laufer succeeded Elkus in 1957. In 1960, under Laufer’s direction, the Conservatory reached a major milestone, becoming the first music school on the west coast to receive accreditation from both the Western Association of Schools and Colleges and the National Association of Schools of Music.

Appointed President in 1966, Milton Salkind guided the Conservatory through its first great period of expansion. During his 24-year term, collegiate enrollment soared from 42 to over 250. He developed innovative programs, many of which became models for other schools. Recognizing the importance of performance, Salkind added recital requirements for juniors and seniors and increased performance opportunities for all students. Salkind also initiated a community service program—the first of its kind among conservatories in the U.S. Through the master class program, Salkind brought the professional music world to the Conservatory with visits from such artists as Alfred Brendel, Leon Fleisher, Placido Domingo, Beverly Sills, Yehudi Menuhin, Pinchas Zukerman and Yo-Yo Ma.

The Salkind years also saw the birth of many events and programs that have now become traditions, such as the annual “Sing-It-Yourself Messiah.” Chamber Music West, a summer festival that brought together talented students, alumni, faculty and distinguished artists, was launched in 1977. The San Francisco Conservatory of Music was the first U.S. conservatory to add Ethnomusicology and Asian music to the curriculum, the first to offer a degree in classical guitar, and the first to offer a Master’s Degree in Chamber Music.

The performance of new music also flourished during Salkind’s tenure. Building on a composition department that had its roots with Ernest Bloch, Salkind hired such talents as Andrew Imbrie, Ivan Tcherepnin and John Adams, an early director of the Conservatory’s New Music Ensemble. Student and faculty ensembles were formed and premiered many new works by such composers as Pauline Oliveros, John Cage, Morton Feldman and Gyorgy Ligeti. This tradition continues today with Nicole Paiement, New Music Ensemble Director, presenting works by such luminaries as Henryk Górecki, George Perle, Lou Harrison and Libby Larsen. In 2002 the Conservatory launched BluePrint – an annual new music festival that commissions, premieres and revisits contemporary music from around the world.

Colin Murdoch, who had served as Dean of the Conservatory since 1988, was appointed President in 1992. Under his leadership, the Conservatory celebrated its 75th anniversary with a gala concert at Davies Symphony Hall featuring such world-renowned artists as Isaac Stern, John Adams, Jeffrey Kahane and Hai-Ye Ni. In 1997, the Conservatory celebrated both its own and composer Lou Harrison’s 80th birthdays with Celebrating Lou Harrison! a multicultural four-day festival of Harrison’s music, dance, art and poetry. Renowned guitarist David Tanenbaum, Chair of the Conservatory’s Guitar Department, was the festival’s Artistic Director.

During the 1999/2000 academic year, the Conservatory celebrated Pulitzer Prize-winning composer George Perle’s 85th birthday with a concert of his works performed by faculty, students and guest artists, and featuring the West Coast Premiere of String Quartet No. 9. The Conservatory Orchestra gave the world premiere of faculty member Robert Greenberg’s Piano Concerto No. 2, written for and performed by pianist and faculty member Mack McCray. And San Francisco Symphony Associate Conductor Alasdair Neale was appointed Artistic Advisor to the Conservatory Orchestra.

This year approximately 407 students enrolled from 35 states and 31 countries to study with our distinguished faculty that includes more than two dozen members of the San Francisco Symphony, Opera and Ballet orchestras. More than 550 exceptionally talented students, ages 4 – 18, receive instruction after school, on weekends and during the summer in the Preparatory Division, and some 300 adults participate in evening classes as well as private instrument and vocal instruction through the Adult Extension Division.

In fall 2006, the Conservatory began its first academic year in our exquisitely beautiful new home at 50 Oak Street, right in the heart of San Francisco’s Civic Center. We reached our $65 million capital campaign fundraising goal for the new building December 31, 2007. These expanded facilities put the Conservatory in the cultural heart of the City and mark the move of a unique world-class institution to the heart of down town.

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music educates exceptionally talented musicians from around the world to become artists of the highest caliber, as well as musical citizens prepared for the challenges of the twenty-first century.

Today’s Conservatory is the creation of generations of gifted faculty and students whohave dedicated their lives to the achievement of artistic excellence. It is also the creation of our surroundings. The distinctive vitality, creativity and beauty of the San Francisco Bay Area are manifested in the Conservatory’s personality—an intimate and supportive environment that enables each student to find a distinctive musical voice.

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