While the neighborhood isn’t quite back to pre-pandemic normal, on October 9, the Sunnyside Conservatory featured an in-person performance of chamber music, an extraordinary event since the COVID-19 pandemic rained down upon the Sunnyside a broadside of falsetto notes.
There was not one discordant note on a Sunday afternoon when four local musicians, the Temescal String Quartet, raised their tuned violins, viola and cello at 4 p.m. and treated a standing room only, socially distanced audience to renditions of Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet in F Minor and Ludwig von Beethoven’s String Quartet in E Flat Major.
With every other chair taped off and with attendees masked, Sally Ross, representing the Friends of the Sunnyside Conservatory, kicked off the event by introducing the musicians, all of whom boast pedigrees that include either the Julliard School of Music, the San Francisco Symphony and Opera Orchestra, the San Francisco Ballet, and the Marin and Berkeley Symphony.
Setting the stage for Haydn and Beethoven, violinists Barbara Riccardi and Katherine Button, violist Joanna Hervig and cellist Nancy Bien followed Ross’s introduction with a rendering of Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade.
Within moments the quartet transitioned to the Haydn Opus 20 #5.
Their notes floated to walls and ceiling made of old growth redwood and copper, a new roof, skylights and glazed windows.
The women — seated on the east side of the restored William A. Merralls building that he used in the late 19th century as a place to store rare plants and for decades after his 1914 death stood in disrepair — looked toward a western facing glazed window. An afternoon sun beamed through, causing one of the violinists to pause, then request the assistance of a man in the audience. Offering her his baseball cap, she took it, fixed its brim over her brow, then raised her instrument.
The conservatory’s octagonal design offers amazing acoustics, which 21st century Sunnyside visionaries preserved. In Merralls’ time it offered the inventor/entrepreneur amazing telescopic visuals of planetary nighttime skyscapes.
The graceful, soaring 111-year old structure took ten years to restore, a project only completed in 2009. Its origins date back to the 1890s, when street railway baron Behrend Joost bought land from Central Pacific Railroad’s Leland Stanford at time when Sunnyside was mostly vegetable fields. The graceful structure’s demolition was averted in the 1970s but raising the funds to restore it took another 30 more. In 2011 San Francisco Beautiful described it as “a beautiful, livable, green and vibrant urban center.”
Where better to experience Beethoven, once the scheduled 20-minute intermission had ended?
In pre-pandemic times pastries and coffee would greet audience members; now the Department of Recreation and Parks, which oversees the conservatory, proscribes such fare. In the interest of public safety, only cups of water were offered.
For the last decade the conservatory, surrounded by Chilean wine and Chinese windmill palms, Canary Island date and a variety of drought tolerant succulent plants has hosted events such as Valentine and holiday card-making parties, free Hatha yoga classes, wreath-making gatherings and even weddings.
From early 2020 to the fall of 2021, COVID put such events on temporary hiatus.
Returning to their seats for Beethoven and reviewing programs handed them earlier in the afternoon as they’d made a modest donation, audience members read that an October 30 Pumpkin carving party has been green lighted now that Delta variant numbers have receded in highly vaccinated San Francisco.
It is a good bet that periodic Saturday gardening work parties, co-sponsored by Friends of Sunnyside Conservatory and Rec and Park will begin soon, as well. For additional information log onto the Friends of Sunnyside Conservatory website: www.sunnysideconservatory.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org to learn how to help with events, meet neighbors, get creative, possibly even donate a performance.
The Sunnyside Neighborhood Association is also planning its third annual Holiday Party for December 11, beginning at 2:30 pm at the Conservatory. Local talent in the form of three musical acts are booked, according to Amy O’Hair the SNA secretary. O’Hair wrote the Glen Park News that neighbors can come to this family-friendly event, but must show proof of vaccination. They’ll enjoy food, drink, seasonal cheer and performances by the Carol Yarbough Ensemble, the Hearst Avenue Jazz All Stars, and Fachman and Muzio, an a capella vocal duo.
When the quartet finished its performance, the afternoon sun had descended and the violinist returned the loaned baseball cap. The audience departed through two exits, some leaving for Monterey Boulevard, other trailing up steps to Joost Avenue while the musicians and sound technician cased instruments and bagged speakers.
They left a building that for too long was an eyesore. Only in 2007 did Sunnyside residents flush out some of $4.2 million in undesignated City funds and restored the dilapidated building, long a blight and a hangout for hooligans at 236 Monterey Boulevard.
In December 2009, at its ceremonial opening, Stacy Garfinkle who lives on Joost Avenue and who became the co-chair of Friends of Sunnyside Conservatory along with Arnold Levine, told the crowd, “Before we came together, this place was haunted and decrepit, not a place you’d want to linger.”
“Now when I look at what has been created I see so much potential for it to become a town square, a vibrant neighborhood hub,” she said.
Only a once-in-a century pandemic could temporarily modify her vision. But On Oct. 9, Haydn and Beethoven returned, triumphant.