San Francisco Conservatory of Music Gets $46 Million Gift

Posted April 26, 2018 7:50 p.m. EDT

Capping the celebration of its 100th anniversary, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on Wednesday announced a gift of $46.4 million from the William K. Bowes Jr. Foundation, among the largest donations ever to a U.S. music school.

The gift will help fund construction of a $185 million, 12-story building on a site just south of San Francisco City Hall. Designed by Mark Cavagnero Associates and scheduled to open in 2020, it will include two concert halls, rehearsal spaces, high-tech studios and classrooms, and will provide housing for the student body.

“It will shape the future of the conservatory, in one of the most exciting pieces of real estate in the world,” David H. Stull, the school’s president, said in a phone interview.

Founded in 1917 by Ada Clement and Lillian Hodghead, the San Francisco Conservatory is the oldest independent music school on the West Coast, with luminaries like Yehudi Menuhin and Isaac Stern among the alumni of its youth program. While the school has long emphasized risk-taking and an expansive view of the field, Stull has pushed it and its curriculum toward the future since becoming president in 2013. Its program in Technology and Applied Composition, which began offering courses in 2015, has been forging a new identity for the 21st-century composer.

Though both composition and technology are fields dominated by men, the TAC program has managed the rare achievement of gender parity, with 13 women and 12 men in its most recently completed cohort. (The conservatory’s traditional composition program had five women and 24 men in the same cohort.)

Driving the program’s development has been its executive director, MaryClare Brzytwa, a composer and educator who combines classical training as a flutist with a background in computer music. She led efforts to recruit as visiting faculty women at the top of their fields in tech-related musical careers. Teachers such as the Grammy-winning Leslie Ann Jones (who directs music recording and scoring at Skywalker Sound) and Jaclyn Shumate (an audio director at Microsoft), Brzytwa said, “allow my students to see it as normal for women to have these careers.”

TAC complements training in composition with special courses in software and studio technology to equip students for careers in such fields as film scoring and video game sound design, as well as in production. The new building, to be named the Ute and William K. Bowes Jr. Center for Performing Arts, will house a special “technology hall” with a state-of-the-art recording studio and other equipment focused on TAC.

“Our students learn how to write classical music and real-world production skills at the same time,” Brzytwa said. “Stylistically, they come from many perspectives — jazz, classical or electronic music — and there is a lot of leeway to plan a path of their own. But all of them seem to want rigor.”

Even students who are not pursuing composition in the TAC program recognize its influence on the school’s direction. DuMarkus Davis, who is in his second year as a violin student, said he decided to move from his native Atlanta to San Francisco “because I wanted to do something involving musical entrepreneurship and wanted to be surrounded by the tech in Silicon Valley. I knew that the TAC program was an element of SFCM. All of that ultimately sold me on the conservatory.”

Before coming to the school for TAC’s one-year professional studies program, Emily Pitts had earned a degree in software engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then spent five years in the corporate world, pursuing a passion for writing music for film and video games on the side. Even before graduating, she has been hired at Facebook to work with its 360 Spatial Workstation team to design spatial audio for its video player.

“It’s a marriage between my engineering and audio interests,” Pitts said.

“In the real world, it can feel intimidating, like you’re trying to get into this boys’ club,” she added. “Working with so many other women and seeing your peers succeed and excel has been great.”