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Seeking High Notes in Bay Area Concert Halls

December 13, 2009

What would the holiday season be without classical music concerts? Bay Area residents who normally wouldn’t set foot in a concert hall find themselves irresistibly drawn at this time of year to places like Grace Cathedral and Davies Symphony Hall to get their seasonal music fixes.

Those concertgoers’ ticket-buying decisions are often influenced by recognition of the artists involved. Handel and Bach are big sellers at Christmas around the globe, as are the American Bach Soloists and Chanticleer closer to home. For Chanticleer, the all-male chorale, revenue from Christmas concerts represents a quarter of its performance income. The group’s scheduled appearance at Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland on Saturday was a sellout.

Far fewer people, however, make decisions based on the concerts’ locations. This is a shame. But in contrast to major cities like Los Angeles, New York and London, San Francisco (and the Bay Area in general) lacks a plentiful supply of first-rate spaces for experiencing live classical music.

Because these sites enhance their interiors with festive decorations, and people are generally in a holiday mood, it’s perhaps easier to tolerate poor acoustics, insufficient restrooms, nonexistent temperature control and a lack of nearby restaurants and bars. But if Christmas audiences, high in number, had a more all-encompassing experience with the music, perhaps they would come back in July.

These auditoriums certainly have positive aspects. Some are visually stunning. The Paramount Theater in Oakland, where the Oakland East Bay Symphony is leading a holiday concert on Sunday, is a gorgeous Art Deco building. Sweeping, gilded staircases; bold frescoes; and plush carpets make for a fairy-tale concertgoing experience.

A number of spaces, like the Herbst Theater, the site of the signing of the Charter of the United Nations on June 26, 1945, have a fascinating history. Others still, like Davies Symphony Hall, offer amenities like comfortable seats, a well-stocked bar and ample restrooms.

The Cathedral of Christ the Light is earning raves among musicians for its acoustics.

“The acoustics are for me the best in the Bay Area for Renaissance and Baroque choral and orchestral music,” said Vance George, director emeritus of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. “I heard ‘The Art of the Fugue’ played by a brass ensemble in the cathedral. I was amazed at the clarity of the musical lines. Each line had integrity but with added warmth and depth.”

But no single setting satisfies all of a concertgoer’s needs. The de Young Museum’s Koret Auditorium provides comfort and great acoustics, but its remote location in Golden Gate Park makes it difficult to reach. Davies Symphony Hall (whose Christmas events include Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” and an appearance by the San Francisco Girls’ Chorus) is a great space to hear large orchestral works. But that 2,743-seat auditorium overwhelms smaller ensembles.

Sound quality is perhaps the biggest challenge facing Bay Area concert halls. For Renaissance and Baroque music, the Cathedral of Christ the Light might deliver fantastic results. But when I heard gospel music there, the sound was far from crisp. The lyrics were barely distinguishable above the rhythm section’s blaring reverberations.

Meanwhile, places like the Herbst, Old First Presbyterian Church (where the ensemble Golden Bough is performing a Celtic holiday concert) and Grace Cathedral (whose offerings include concerts by its resident Choir of Men and Boys) seem to have spotty acoustics.

Sitting front and center at a recent Trinity Choir of Cambridge concert at Grace Cathedral was, sonically speaking, a heavenly experience. Yet I had trouble distinguishing individual lines during a performance last summer of Handel’s “Music for the Royal Fireworks” by the American Bach Soloists. Maybe the lack of auditory crispness had something to do with where I sat, toward the back and slightly to one side of the church. I find I obtain more clarity from the balcony than in the orchestra seats at the Herbst and Old First Presbyterian Church.

Of all the classical concert locales in the Bay Area, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s 450-seat Concert Hall (where the Sanford Dole Ensemble will perform “Messyah,” a contemporary take on Handel’s famous oratorio) comes close to being ideal. The vibrant acoustics suit both large and small ensembles. With its symphony-size performance platform, tall windows and elegant Beaux-Arts décor, the auditorium feels intimate yet expansive. It helps that its location in the Hayes Valley puts it close to public transportation and great restaurants and bars.

Yet it doesn’t say much for San Francisco that its most enticing classical-music setting is part of a school. A great city needs great spaces for all art forms, including classical music. Maybe when the holiday concertgoing hordes start raising their voices and stop buying tickets, producers, building managers and civic leaders will take note.


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