By Erin Luhmann, Photos by Marc Olivier Le Blanc
Photo above: Brent Assink at the Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall
The two regal buildings housing San Francisco’s premier symphony and opera stand directly across from one another. Each pulses with music driven by the artistic visions of University of Minnesota alumni Brent Assink (M.A. ’81), left, and John Churchwell (M.M. ’94, D.M.A. ’02), below, who are, respectively, executive director of the San Francisco Symphony and head of music for the San Francisco Opera. Both studied music at the University of Minnesota, gained momentum through opportunities with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and Minnesota Opera, and took their talent to San Francisco. Driven by a passion for music education and innovation, the two play an integral role in shaping the city’s music culture.
Serving in his 16th year as executive director, Assink has spearheaded a number of initiatives that have enlarged the orchestra’s profile. Inspired by his early work with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, when he was involved in taking performances to schools, Assink has helped expand the San Francisco Symphony’s presence to every local classroom, grades one through five. Another alumnus, David Strand (J.D. ’81), also contributes to the success of the San Francisco Symphony, where he serves as the vice chair of the Board of Governors.
John Churchwell at the War Memorial Opera House
“We basically provide much of the music education in the classroom,” Assink says. “That’s something I think is part of what a symphony orchestra ought to do in the community.”
Assink’s focus on weaving the symphony into the fabric of the community has led to a number of projects: a classical music program for PBS, heritage concerts that celebrate cultural diversity, a new black box venue for more intimate performances, and a program that pairs amateur musicians with professional coaches and stage time.
Churchwell carved out his niche in the West Coast arts and culture scene after accepting an offer to serve as the head of music for the San Francisco Opera. He gained exposure in the Twin Cities, where Midwestern approachability allowed him to make connections quickly, he says. In San Francisco, he established himself as a distinguished mentor and performer.
Every summer, Churchwell trains upcoming singers and pianists at a music festival in Santa Barbara; he also works with Adler Fellows, the Opera’s residency program for advanced young artists. As head of music, he oversees musical preparation of all the Opera’s performances—up to 10 per year—working with individual singers on their roles, assisting conductors in their work with the orchestra, playing piano for staging rehearsals, and maintaining the standards of excellence throughout the run of each opera. Churchwell has managed to stay engaged as a performer as well.
“I know the satisfaction of expressing your unique vision about a piece of music without using words,” he says, speaking from his experience as a pianist. “It transports you to a different place.”