By Murray Schneider
If San Franciscans aren’t convinced by this time that the renovated Sunnyside Conservatory is a magical venue for listening to chamber music, it wouldn’t have taken much to convince them on March 17. The Temescal String Quartet had no trouble persuading a capacity-filled Conservatory audience of music aficionados this was the case by the time the musicians put down their instruments to sustained applause on a sunny St. Patrick’s Day.
The string quartet’s musicians, each with day jobs at either the San Francisco ballet or opera, came together six years ago. They have made a habit of regaling music lovers ever since. “Our passion is chamber music,” said violinist Barbara Riccardi, who plays First Violin in the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and who lives only a block away on Congo Street.
Riccardi watched the restoration of the Conservatory, long dilapidated and derelict, practically from her front doorstep. “The building is fabulous,” she said, laying down her bow and taking a pre-performance break. People began trickling in from Monterey Boulevard, selecting seats preparatory to a 4 p.m. scheduled performance of Franz Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet, op 76, #3 “Emperor.”
“It turned out well,” agreed Sally Ross, a charter member of Friends of the Sunnyside Conservatory which, in 2007, spearheaded an effort to tap a City $4,200,000 undesignated fund and restore the decrepit building, long home to squatters and vandals.
The drive for reconstruction of the Conservatory was lead by the Co-Chairs of the Friends of Sunnyside Conservatory, Stacy Garfinkel and Arnold Levine. Arnold noticed some as yet undesignated funds in a City program and led a group to try to obtain the funds for the restoration of the dilapidated Sunnyside Conservatory. With the support of Rec & Park, the group attended and spoke at several hearings and eventually met with success.
That effort has become a jewel in Sunnyside’s crown. “The neighborhood really likes it,” said Ross, who doubles as Membership Secretary for the Glen Park Association.
And why wouldn’t it, as the restoration completed in 2009 is respectful to the building’s original octagonal design and has roots stretching back to the 1890s when street railway visionary Behrend Joost formed the Sunnyside Land Company, which he bought from Leland Stanford when it was mostly vegetable fields.
Musician Ruth Lane, who lives in Petaluma and has seen her share of present day vegetable gardens, leaned across her cello. “I love it here,” she said. “It’s so easy to hear.”
Sally Ross, who lives around the corner on Joost Avenue, reached for a microphone and welcomed the standing room only throng as the afternoon sun blanketed the airy wood paneled room. The Quartet segued into Haydn’s four-movement piece, which is a masterpiece in harmony and which eventually became the German National Anthem. They followed with three short Gaelic “surprises,” including “Danny Boy” and an Irish cradlesong.
At the intermission neighbors mingled, sampling pasties donated by Chenery Street’s Destination Bakery and coffee brought by Railroad Espresso on Monterey. “I was astonished and so impressed,” said Destination Bakery’s Joe Schuver when asked several days afterward about the Conservatory’s transformation. “It’s become a big part of the neighborhood and we’re happy to support it.”
Bev Mutnick sat in a second row aisle seat and marveled at the building’s interior, constructed from old growth recycled redwood and locally obtained Douglas fir. She studied the ceiling support beams, which still looked freshly repainted four years after the remodel. Much earlier, in 1975, the building was designated San Francisco Landmark #78, which green-lighted Rec and Park’s subsequent championship of its preservation.
“It was a wreck for so long,” said Mutnick, who has lived on Mateo Street for 25 years. “I like the idea of Recreation and Park supporting such a venue.” The San Francisco Recreation and Park schedules events and collects rent, banking that the City’s $4.2 million investment will pay dividends.
“I think it was very enterprising of Rec and Park,” said Sally Ross. “It’s a smart thing to do.”
Why not? A ramshackle hulk that might have been a teardown elsewhere morphs into a neighborhood meeting place, a venue for community Valentine’s Day card making, Halloween pumpkin carvings, puppet modeling, theatrical performances, Christmas wreath braiding and partnerships with City College of San Francisco horticulture classes and elementary school outdoor programs. Throw into this artisan and educational mix a Bar Mitzvah, a wedding, a Quinceanera and who’s going to complain?
“It’s a great event place,” piped in Joe Schuver. “I just baked a wedding cake for a reception held there.”
Weddings seem to be a common occurrence at the Conservatory.
“Two of my closest friends who lived near by are going to be married there in June,” said Ric Lopez, owner of Chenery Street’s Modernpast. Lopez lives on Edna Street and has been in the neighborhood since the fourth grade. “My friends have been together for six years, saw it, loved it and booked it.”
Sitting in the same row as Mutnick, Tori McMillan, who lives on Bradford Street in Bernal Heights, took stock of her surroundings, including palm trees, a dogwood tree and water efficient and drought tolerant plants that creates a resource efficient landscape minimizing the use of the new automatic irrigation system.
“It’s gorgeous and natural and so pleasant now,” McMillan said, who has been driving past the deteriorating building for years. “It catches your eye and I adore the two-storied windows that look over such lovely landscaping.”
The intermission over, the musicians regained their chairs, joined now by two additional players, rounding out their numbers to a sextet. The afternoon sun streamed through operable high performance windows that comprise fifty percent of the walls of the west wing and octagon, making it difficult for Ruth Lane to read her music. From a friend she borrowed a baseball cap, which was embossed fittingly with the letters “BLNK” and pulled the brim over her eyes.
Along side McMillan, Carroll Taylor, an attorney visiting from Hawaii, echoed McMillan.
“Sitting here is engaging, not at all like sitting in an urban setting in the middle of a city,” he said. Next to him, his wife Nancy, who has lived on Oahu since 1968, chimed in. She’d just finished nibbling home made ginger snap cookies baked by Bill Wilson, who lives on Edna Street.
“It’s like sitting in Central Union Church in Honolulu,” she said, “and looking out at nature.”
“I like the little animal statues,” said Tori McMillan, speaking of the small bronze fantastical creatures that complement the landscaping. “And the door handles are charming.”
Carroll Taylor watched his wife sample Joe Schuver’s goodies and smiled, anticipating the resumption of the ensemble’s performance. “It’s like a private concert at a friends house,” he said about a structure so evocative of the Victorian era.
Near Ruth Lane, violinist Katherine Button took her chair, looked over at her husband Russ Button who supplied the sound system, and massaged her violin. Katherine Button grew up on Dalewood Way on the slopes of Mt. Davidson. Russ Button grew up on Mt. Davidson, too. So there was something karmic about each returning to the neighborhood from their Alameda home.
The sextet looked at Riccardi for a cue, then eased into Johannes Brahms’ String Sextet, G Major, op 36. Jonna Hervig tried on an offered baseball cap, too, this one with a San Francisco Giants logo. It didn’t fit and she tossed it on an empty chair. The sun continued to inch across her forehead, which she ignored as she angled her bow across her viola strings.
The Brahms piece ended and the six women stood, allowing the applause to warm them. In front of Bev Mutnick, two little girls wiggled. Only moments before their swinging legs had kept time with the Brahms.
“I liked it,” said seven-year old Josephine, who attends Children’s Day School on Dolores Street and is in the second grade. “The violins played so many different tunes.”
Her friend Tila, also seven, is in the second grade at Sunnyside Elementary and plays violin in the Golden Gate Philharmonic. Petra Dekens, Tila’s mom, beamed. Providing a musical experience so close to home wasn’t lost on her.
“It’s beautiful here,” said Dekens, who has lived on Arlington Street for four years.
Tori McMillan, who also played the violin in elementary school and who is now the Director of Operations and Finance for IB5k, a digital company that does video production and develops software, slipped by the mother-daughter trio. “It makes me want to participate in music once more,” McMillan said. “How nice it would be to do so again.”
The sextet began returning their instruments to their cases, as the audience fanned out, weaving between rows of chairs. “I wish there were more chairs,” said Sally Ross
Judging by the afternoon event, there’s certainly a demand.
Barbara Riccardi closed her case, ready to make her way back to Congo Street. “You know,” she had said earlier in the afternoon, “Temescal is a Native-American word for a religious bath. It’s very spiritual.”
That strikes more than a few musical chords.