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SFCM President David H. Stull presents his ‘vision for the future’

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This is not a good time for the performing arts. Last week the Fates cruelly contrived to precede the Annual Meeting of the San Francisco Opera (SFO) with the news of the closing of the San Diego Opera. At the beginning of his speech to the Meeting attendees, General Director David Gockley called this event a “tragedy” and appeared visibly shaken. I would guess than most of his behind-the-scenes colleagues at SFO had reacted in exactly the same way, as did many (most?) of us attending the Meeting.

In his report of Gockley’s speech, Janos Gereben used the phrase “Eyes Wide Open” in his headline, stressing the need for an acute awareness of the harsh realities likely to arise in the future with regard to not only finances but also aesthetics. On his The Rest is Noise blog, Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, hyperlinked to Gereben’s article with the suggestion that Gockley was reading the “writing on the wall.” However, beyond the shock of the fall of the San Diego Opera and Gereben’s reporting of harsh economic realities, there lurks a deeper and darker narrative, whose plot concerns the extent to which “economic recovery” has revealed itself as a “fiction of convenience” that benefits the financial sector with little regard to that once thriving middle class of consumers who could be as easily wooed into the War Memorial Opera House as into Macy’s.

Indeed, those who dip into Simon Head’s recent book, Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Dumber Humans, may easily despair that gainful and productive employment for the middle class is now solidly a thing of the past and threatens to remain so. If we are to believe Head, then the economic divide will ultimately lead to a narrow concentration of wealth at the top and a plethora of flesh-and-blood drones doing little more than providing software with more flexible arms and legs. This makes for a good time to remember that, when students first gathered in Tahrir Square, they were less concerned with corrupt individuals in the Egyptian government than with the fact that the prevailing system of governance had basically robbed them of any prospect of a future.

Last night at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), it was the turn of President David H. Stull to look into the future and prepare for it. There is at least one point of view from which the performing arts may be regarded as an outlier in the dismal socioeconomic situation that confronts us. With precious few exceptions the act of performance (of music or any other art form) cannot be reduced to the programming of mindless drones. Music lives though the mindful and motivated actions of performers served by well-honed capacities in both physical and mental domains.

The “Vision for the Future” lecture that Stull delivered last night seemed to be sympathetic with this premise. Indeed, in many respects his lecture was an elaboration of the basic mission statement he issued shortly after taking office:

As a professional school, we are committed to providing an extraordinary education that prepares our graduates for lives as fully-engaged citizens of the world. Our core mission is to transform our students—artistically, intellectually, professionally and individually. Through the study of music at the highest level, our students learn to seek achievement in every endeavor, to convert challenge into opportunity, to understand the nature of excellence and to pursue their dreams with vigor and determination. We believe that inspiring the imagination, cultivating the artist, honing the intellect and developing the professional are the keys to launching innovative graduates who excel in any field.

At one level this may be read simply as a statement that professional education cannot narrow its focus to avoid the liberal arts. However, when considered in the framework of students who have chosen to commit themselves to conservatory study, Stull’s statement makes a firm commitment that the performance of music cannot be divorced from context, a context that can only be apprehended through the serious study of disciplines in both the physical and social sciences, as well as insights into the nature of mind itself afforded by not only philosophy but also literature.

In a preceding paragraph I used the phrase “mindful and motivated actions.” Constantin Stanislavski believed that the physical actions of any dramatic actor were meaningless unless grounded in motivation. To recognize that the performance of music is motivated by a rich context of extra-musical factors is simply to extrapolate Stanislavski from the theater stage to the concert hall.

Last night Stull discussed achieving his mission through three domains of activity:

  1. Reshaping the curriculum to accommodate a broader set of objectives, allowing for visiting faculty in disciplines other than those directly related to music, adding business education courses, and preparing younger students with a broader pre-college program.
  2. Expanding the musical skill set into new domains of technology and media, serving objectives such as the creation of music for film, games, and video.
  3. Expanding professional alliances with leading arts institutions, not only in San Francisco but also along the Pacific Rim.

In addition, in recognition that the richest learning experiences emerge in a setting with a strong sense of community, Stull discussed his current efforts to provide SFCM students and visiting faculty with a new residence hall in the Civic Center, thus taking a proactive approach to a campus-based education, rather than simply activities in a single building.

Then, as if to motivate his message, Stull’s lecture was followed by two distinctly different performing ensembles, whose one commonality is their embodiment of “mindful and motivated actions.” The first of these was the New Century Chamber Orchestra, founded by a former Concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony, Stuart Canin, and now led by Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. The second was the thoroughly eclectic Punch Brothers, whose guitarist, Chris Eldridge, was studying at Oberlin College when Stull was Dean of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music.

Stull’s goals for his new position are, without a doubt, ambitious.. They will require equally ambitious funding. Stull also provided a state-of-play account of the current capital campaign. The signs are promising. However, as some have observed, the world of the performing arts has become one of competing over slices from a shrinking pie. If Stull appreciates the value of a sense of community within SFCM activities, he will still have to face up to whether or not citizens of San Francisco (if not the United States) still appreciate and value that sense of community.

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