Friday, September 22, 2023

Breaking: SFS Planning Major Davies Renovations

Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall
Photo by Lisa Hirsch

Um, wow: San Francisco Symphony is in the early stages of planning major, major renovations to Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall. Here are the relevant links:
In brief, they're thinking of the following:
  • Expanding into Lake Louise, aka the parking lot, by building a recital hall there.
  • Connecting it to the existing building.
  • Renovating the existing concert hall to reduce the number of seats to about 2100.
The SFS web site item says that they're in the very early stages, but they've got collaborative partners lined up already, in the form of  Mark Cavagnero Associates (a firm that did the renovations of the Veterans Building for SFO, work at the SFCM campus, and lots more) and FRANK GEHRY, whom I hope needs no introduction.

Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles
Frank Gehry, architect
Photo by Lisa Hirsch

I made some jokes when Esa-Pekka Salonen was hired about whether we could expect a Frank Gehry concert hall to follow. Prescience?? I mean, this would be awesome in some ways: Davies has had acoustical problems throughout its history, even with the big renovation funded by Gordon Getty, and Lake Louise is a major waste of valuable real estate.

On the other hand, does Civic Center need yet another recital hall? I say this knowing absolutely nothing about what the theoretical new hall would be like. But the larger Civic Center area already has Herbst Theater (renovated a few years ago), the Taube Theater, the Veterans Building Green Room, SF Jazz, three halls in the old bulding at SFCM and two in the new, St. Mark's, and Old First. That's eleven small concert halls within three-quarters of a mile of each other, and I'm not even counting Zellerbach A, the space in Davies used for SFSoundBox, or the Nourse Theater, which SF Performances used while Herbst was under construction.

Can SFS sell tickets for programs in this potential new hall?? Well, one might check attendance numbers for SFS chamber music concerts at Davies and at the Legion of Honor, not that anyone outside SFS has access to those figures.

As exciting as this possibility is, it would be extremely expensive! Davies opened in 1980 and cost $28 million to build. A renovation and expansion could be expected to cost in the neighborhood of $250 to $500 million, based on what it cost the NY Phil/Lincoln Center for a gut renovation of its even more problematic concert hall (which is now on its third name!).

Where would SFS play when Davies was being renovated? Across the street in its old home at the War Memorial Opera House? Across the bay in the dreadful Zellerbach concert hall? Here and there, with runouts to the Paramount Theater (Oakland), California Theater (San Jose), Bing (Stanford), Mondavi (Davis), and points in between?

And where would the money come from? Well, perhaps this is part of the reason that the Board is being intransigent about paying the musicians what they're worth: they have real estate dreams. Ya know, the musicians are what the orchestra is all about! These plans cannot be executed on the backs of the musicians.

But...let's get back to arts patron and composer Gordon Getty, who made major contributions to the first Davies renovation. In the last year or so, he has sold off hundreds of millions of dollars of art and objects that he and his late wife collected over the years. Is it possible that any new hall will be named....Ann and Gordon Getty Hall?

And would the promise of a new hall and newly-renovated hall make it more likely that Salonen would extend his contract?

Huge thanks to reader Josh Williams, who called this story to my attention in blog comments elsewhere.

Update: I've made a few minor updates, including improving the formatting, correcting the original cost of Davies to $28 million, correcting the spelling of Ann Getty, and correcting the number of recital halls.



Bryan said...

How many does it seat now? 2100 still seems too big--isn't the size the main issue with Davies's acoustics?

The lobby seems too small--a real COVID petri dish--maybe they can enlarge that.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Currently 2743. Going down to 2100 would be an enormous change and I have no idea how they would do it. Symphony Hall Boston seats 2370 and has amazing acoustics. The main theater at Carnegie Hall seats 2800. The Metropolitan Opera seats 3800, Chicago's Civic Opera seats maybe 3600. These all have good to great acoustics.

It's possible to have good acoustics in a hall with a large seating capacity, in other words; many design factors besides capacity are in play.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Also....Zellerbach, which is ghastly, seats under 2000.

Jim Meehan said...

Looking at the photo in the SF Standard article ("A screenshot from the Planning Department project application shows the proposed renovations to Davies Symphony Hall"), it seems as if they might remove the "box seats" on the sides and back of the floor level. But that wouldn't add up to 643 seats. Would they remove the sides of the Loge (A-D,N-P)? That would be financially ill-advised, since Loge seats are the most expensive. Close the 2nd Tier, the nosebleed/vertigo section? The sound is great up there, the view is, um, distant, but the seats are cheap. But since the pandemic, the 2nd Tier has been sparsely filled. Of course, any of these changes will have drastic effects on the acoustics. Maybe it will be an improvement, as it was back in the 90's when they added risers on the stage. (We have two years to speculate.)

Lisa Hirsch said...

Those are all good questions. Frank Gehry would be responsible for reimagining/redesigning the interior of t1he hall, and my bet is that they're thinking of a gut renovation.

The Davies interior is kind of blah, the stage is smallish, especially compared to the gigantic stage at Disney, and the seats are old and uncomfortable. A lot could be changed or improved.1

Michael Good said...

The way I read it, the recital hall is a new home for SoundBox, replacing Zellerbach A at the Hayes Street corner. Lake Louise is planned to be an outdoor performance space with parking underneath. Maybe they'll narrow the main hall and use the space savings for increased lobby and musician space?

Lisa Hirsch said...

That's possible, although I think that for the SoundBox audience, Zellerbach A is ideal. It's kinda dim and alternative, it has the Meyer Constellation system, the space is huge and flexible. Stages can be set up in multiple locations and it can be very open, as it was for Claire Chase's performance of PAN earlier this year.

That's certainly one option for the main hall.

David Bratman said...

The Standard article says it's the expansion of the floor space that will reduce the hall's seating. Though they don't say how. But it doesn't sound like closing the second tier or anything like that.

But a renovation and expansion is probably a good thing, in and of itself, leaving aside the disruption it'll cause. Visiting the enormous lobby and gift shop at Disney brought home to me what a dinky little outfit we have here.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Yeah, the Disney gift shop, with recordings, scores, books about music; the giant circulation spaces, the lecture area, the cafeteria, the nice restaurant. They're definitely halls from different eras.

There's some discussion of the facade, and I definitely hate the way the ground floor at Davies sneers at passers-bye.