For 100 years now, San Francisco’s Community Music Center has stood out for its mission of making music accessible for all people, regardless of financial means. It has offered classes tuition-free or on a sliding scale taught by local talents in Latin, jazz, blues, Middle Eastern and string orchestra, serving 3,000 student annually.
On Wednesday evening, CMC will celebrate its centennial with a benefit gala and concert of star performing artists at the Julia Morgan Ballroom. Performers include mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, tenor Pene Pati, soprano Amina Edris, contralto Paula West, pianist Jake Heggie, guitarist Jason Vieaux, trumpeter Sean Jones, the Marcus Shelby Trio, the Alexander String Quartet and percussionist John Santos.
“Everybody who is performing has been a part of our mission, whether they have worked with our students, done concerts here for free or done master classes,” said CMC Executive Director Julie Rulyak Steinberg of the gala. “We thought, ‘What if we had a CMC recital on steroids?’”
CMC is growing in physical size and number of students served. In February, the nonprofit broke ground on an expansion of its main Mission District Branch at 552 Capp St. — there’s also a campus in the Richmond District at 741 30th Ave. — which will allow CMC to teach music to 1,000 more students.
“There is a struggle between wanting to grow profitably and reaching more folks,” Steinberg said. “We are lucky to have a huge resource of really talented teachers and people working with us; but for us, it’s about capacity and space. CMC has been so constrained by how much space and financial resources we have available.”
Making music education available to marginalized and underserved communities has been a longtime objective.
“We have developed a transgender choir for transgender, intersex and queer people called New Voices Bay Area,” Steinberg said. “It’s really difficult for folks who identify as trans to find a safe space to sing, and to explore their voice, so we wanted to meet that need. Similarly, we realize there is a huge need to educate and inspire folks to learn more about Black music, from its diasporic origins all the way through modern music, rock and roll, modern American music, rap and hip-hop, so we created a tuition-free program to meet that need.”
Jones, who was a member of SFJAZZ Collective, a visiting artist with San Francisco Performances and a visiting teacher at CMC, said he is impressed by CMC’s focus on American music.
“It’s time for the Juilliards, Peabodys, Curtises and S.F. Conservatories of the world to pivot and say, ‘This is our American culture through sound and we will conserve its past,’” said Jones. “And this beautiful organization is doing that with young people — they’re playing jazz music and they are teaching various types of theory through the American lens.”
Heggie, who is the composer of operas that include “Dead Man Walking,” as well as hundreds of songs and chamber, choral and orchestral works, has done concerts at CMC and for its students as far back as the mid-1990s.
“I’ve been a longtime champion of what CMC offers and the variety of classes that are available for people who can’t afford things and spaces to rehearse,” Heggie said. “It’s exactly what a community center is supposed to be. I’ve told other performers that the Opera House or Symphony Hall or recital halls — they are all community centers. The community needs to be welcome; that CMC has done this for 100 years is remarkable.”
CMC’s gala fundraisers, which include a benefit auction, have played a major role in defraying the costs of the nonprofit’s programming and expansion. With CMC’s Centennial Gala, the institution is banking on continued community support to make its mission possible over the next 100 years.
“The arts are not a nice thing to have — they are essential, they are the fabric of being human,” said Steinberg.
Livestream ticket availability and auction registration for the 6 p.m. Wednesday Centennial Gala can be accessed at sfcmc.org