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Wanted: Great New Recital Hall for San Francisco

September 23, 2009

herbst.jpegPeople who go to recitals around the Bay Area tend to spend a lot of time complaining about the Herbst Theatre. The 928-seater hall (pictured left) has a noble history and is lovely to look at. It was the site of the signing of the United Nations Charter on June 26, 1945. Originally designed as the Veterans Auditorium, the theatre was refurbished and renamed Herbst Theatre in 1977. Eight large beaux-arts murals, created by Frank Brangwyn for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, adorn the walls while overhead five chandeliers hang from the blue and gold-leaf ceiling.

But as lovely and important as Herbst is, it's a lousy place to put on a concert. The acoustic is bad, the place always feels empty (as it's usually quite difficult to fill 928 seats for chamber music concerts) and the stage looks shabby owing to the cheap-looking sound dampening "wall" that always acts as a backdrop for performances. The space lacks a bar or cafe and the lobby feels chilly and unwelcoming and has nothing much in the way of seating.

Herbst ends up being the de facto choice for presenters because there really aren't any other viable options in town. Sure, there are plenty of churches, but none of them feel like concert halls and elderly classical music fans don't feel comfortable sitting in pews for long amounts of time. With the possible exception of the performance hall at the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park (which sounds good and is all state of the art but feels claustrophobic and sparse and is difficult to access without a car in the evening) I'm hard pressed to think of a single other suitable space in which to present chamber music concerts.

I wonder whether some of the auditoriums used for jazz, rock and folk music gigs might fit the bill? I love Yoshi's as a space. The Great American Music Hall might also be a fun (albeit perhaps not sonically terrific or particularly comfortable) place to experience a classical music concert. Or perhaps it's about time that San Francisco invested in a great new recital hall?

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