Davies Symphony Hall
Davies Symphony Hall | Credit: Drew Altizer

Even as the San Francisco Symphony’s 112th season opened on Friday and the orchestra’s musicians were playing for their 300th day without a contract, there was other news to consider.

It’s only a possibility now, not yet a formal plan, but the future of the 43-year-old Davies Symphony Hall is being considered. The 2,743-seat home of the SF Symphony is not like the New York Philharmonic’s David Geffen Hall, which (as Philharmonic Hall and then Avery Fisher Hall) had to be reconstructed repeatedly.

Thanks to a $9 million donation by Gordon Getty, the original acoustical problems in Davies were fixed by Kirkegaard Associates in a 1992 renovation.

You may like Davies or not, and there are some valid concerns about aspects of it, but the SF Symphony’s major problem is not the number or nature of seats in the hall but finding and maintaining enough ticket-paying bottoms to sit in them. Also, unlike the situation in New York, there is no equivalent to Carnegie Hall for the orchestra to use while cranes loom over its own auditorium.

Additional performance and rehearsal spaces inside Davies

And yet, a plan is being formulated to reconstruct Davies and some of its environment (such as the large outdoor parking lot on Franklin Street), including reducing the number of seats to 2,100 and adding new facilities to the venue, as if the three Zellerbach Rehearsal Halls in the building were not enough.

Responding to The San Francisco Standard’s first report on the developments, an SF Symphony press release stated both the intention and the very early “exploratory stage” of the project:

The plan: “In September, the San Francisco Symphony submitted a proposal to the San Francisco Planning Department to begin the entitlement process for potential future renovations to Davies Symphony Hall. The project exploration contemplates changes to both the inside and outside of Davies Symphony Hall with the goal of making the San Francisco Symphony’s home base more publicly accessible, transparent, and inviting.”

Status and timing? “At this point, the San Francisco Symphony is still in an early, exploratory stage of this process, and is not yet filing any building permit applications or embarking on or announcing any major renovation projects. Drawings submitted with the entitlement proposal are schematic and conceptual.”

Wilsey Court
Wilsey Court is one of the de Young Museum’s several performance venues | Courtesy of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Initial reactions to the news from musicians and observers ranged from questions to opposition, such as this from music writer Lisa Hirsch:

“Where would the money come from? [The project is estimated between $250 and $500 million.] 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. … The musicians are what the orchestra is all about! These plans cannot be executed on the backs of the musicians.”

The plan for a new recital hall is especially puzzling because, in addition to the building’s own Zellerbach facilities, the Civic Center area is flush with performance venues, from the superb Herbst Theatre to the horrid Green Room in the Veterans Building. There are three performance spaces in the new San Francisco Conservatory of Music building across the street from Davies and more in SFCM’s Oak Street building, and don’t forget the chorus room and other spaces at the War Memorial Opera House.

There are also San Francisco Opera’s two newish halls in the Veterans Building and rehearsal and performance spaces yards away in the San Francisco Ballet Building, Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, SFJAZZ Center, San Francsico Public Library’s Main Library, Orpheum Theatre, and Asian Art Museum.

The Zellerbach space in Davies is described by the SF Symphony: “Its primary rehearsal hall features an orchestra pit, fly space, and stage area with dimensions equal to those of the War Memorial Opera House. Its two more intimate halls are ideal for minor staging, choral, and orchestra sectional rehearsals. The main rehearsal hall has served as the venue for opera and symphony performances as well as for the pathbreaking SoundBox.”

Not far from Davies are also a dozen performance venues in the de Young Museum, Legion of Honor, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Contemporary Jewish Museum and Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, Palace of Fine Arts, California Academy of Sciences, Fort Mason, and the Presidio, plus downtown theaters.