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San Francisco Musicians Create 'New' Classical Music

  • Richard Paul

Nonsemble 6 (photo by Matthew Washburn)

Nonsemble 6 (photo by Matthew Washburn)

California has long been seen as the place in the U.S. where new ideas are tested. A group of young artists in San Francisco are continuing that trend, giving new life to an old field: opera and European classical music.

There’s a well-worn path that conservatory students take after graduation. Amy Foote, a newly minted opera singer, says normally it was expected that…“I would perform in community opera productions and that I would audition for young artists programs and getting a church gig. Also, for instrumentalists, I think it is expected that you would take orchestral excerpt auditions.”

But like most artists, Foote had bigger dreams.

“I wanted to perform new classical chamber music, so I made sure that I could,” she said.

Foote is not alone, either in her drive or in her desire to seek a new way to make a career in the field of European classical music. In fact, she’s part of a trend among her former classmates at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

“What I saw out of the San Francisco Conservatory were these students who were very interested in developing their own projects in an entrepreneurial way," said Sidney Chen, an editor for NewMusicBox, a web publication that covers new American orchestral work. "They’ve said that where opportunities don’t exist, they’ve decided to create them.”


This push towards entrepreneurial risk-taking arose in an organic and spontaneous fashion. Though it’s not something they teach students at the San Francisco Conservatory, several conservatory professors have recently taken it upon themselves to work with the school’s recent alumni in a new and exciting way.

Mobius Trio

Mobius Trio

“They’re our collaborators now. They’re writing music for us,” said Conservatory graduate Matt Linder, a member of the classical guitar group Mobius Trio.

The title cut off the Mobius Trio’s new album "Last Light" was written by the head of the Conservatory’s composition department, Professor Dan Becker. Mobius had another song written for them by music history professor Luciano Chessa.

“These are people who command very real commission fees for a reason," LInder said. "They are known composers. But they’ve been incredibly generous in terms of donating part of their commission fee to us.”

Friction Quartet

Friction Quartet

Becker also collaborated with another group of alumni, the Friction Quartet, on an hour-long work for dance and string quartet. In the case of Amy Foote’s group, Nonsemble 6, a professor got them a booking that led to a national tour, starting clear across the country in Washington, D.C.

“Mary Ellen Poole, the Dean, gave us the opportunity of going to the Kennedy Center," she said. "That’s awesome.”

​In classical fields like opera and concert music, there is often a lament that no new work is being created. According to Chen of NewMusicBox, this experiment is helping address that problem too.

​“We’ve seen several years of very concentrated activity specifically centered on contemporary music. That’s also unusual," he said. "It’s not just that there’s a string quartet that plays Beethoven very well. What we’re seeing now is a whole string of performers coming out of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music who are all very committed to contemporary music and in some cases, exclusively committed to contemporary music.”

It is self-evident that these collaborations are helping these young artists, but they are doing something much more. In an increasingly disassociated and global era, this new way of working has created a unique, local phenomenon that enriches the lives of San Francisco music lovers and creates for them and for the artists a true sense of community.
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