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Concert Halls: The Unremarked Musical Component

As musicians, we devote a great deal of time and attention to our instruments and our mastery and interpretation of the music we perform, but often, the critical, final component of our musical performance—the acoustical space through which we communicate to our audience—fails us, or at the very least, seriously compromises the beauty and effectiveness of our performance. We heard a vocal performance recently in Hertz Hall, at UC Berkeley, which made our hearts melt with its exquisite beauty, but the same performance would have probably left us unmoved had we experienced it in 1st Congregational Church, the nearby concert hall used in Berkeley for most independent performances for medium-sized and larger audiences. Finding effective performance spaces is especially a problem for independent choral ensembles operating with limited budgets in the San Francisco Bay Area.

That concert halls can be designed to convey musical sounds clearly and beautifully to everyone in the audience is certainly a fact of modern society. Many such halls exist, and we have read of the detailed attention given to these venues and the way in which, for example, each instrument of an orchestra is heard in an orchestral hall such as Davies (whose acoustics weren’t acceptable initially, but had to be refined), or Seattle’s Benaroya Hall, in which the entire architectural design began with the acoustical objectives. But in San Francisco and the East Bay, the only public concert halls we are aware of are Davies Symphony Hall, Herbst Theatre, Masonic Auditorium, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the Paramount Theater, in Oakland. Because of their size and expense, Davies Hall, the Masonic Auditorium and the Paramount Theater have generally been used only by very large choruses, in works with orchestra, and neither Herbst nor the Yerba Buena Center appears to have been used for choral performances very often, if at all, in the recent past (although Herbst is used by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorus). Whether this is for acoustic and performance reasons, or because of rental costs, or for some other reason, we don’t know. In any case, in the San Francisco Bay Area, we do not have a well-designed public concert hall suitable for small and medium-sized ensembles and audiences that is an obviously desirable place to give a concert—the kind of recital hall that is available in many other major cities.

The concert halls which do exist are either associated with academic institutions, such as UC Berkeley, and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and are not generally available to independent groups, or they are not concert halls at all, but rather are churches or auditoriums originally built principally to serve other purposes, and may not be particularly well suited to choral performances.

Of course, when one begins to analyze the acoustic requirements of a performance space, as recording engineers must do, it is apparent that it depends on several factors: the nature of the music, whether the music is a cappella or accompanied, the size of the ensemble, and the size of the audience. Some churches are ideal performance spaces for certain music and ensembles. But in general, churches were not designed primarily as musical performance spaces.

How do choral directors deal with this problem?

Some groups program music which can be performed effectively in the church spaces available. Small ensembles and chamber choruses, which perform a cappella, are most likely to find suitable performance spaces in local churches. Medium-sized and larger choruses, performing a mix of music with piano, organ and instrumental accompaniment, are probably the least well served by the acoustics and spatial arrangements in the churches most readily available to them. Churches with resonant acoustics that blend and enhance a cappella ensemble sound generally muddy the sound of orchestral instruments and make the choral articulation of text much more challenging. Churches with dry acoustics, effective for speech, may allow instruments to be heard clearly, but they provide so little acoustic support for choral sound that the performance lacks presence and power by the time it reaches most of the audience. Usually, directors find themselves using spaces that are convenient and affordable, and then do whatever they can to compensate for venue acoustic problems by altering the musical performance itself—slowing tempi, exaggerating vocal articulation, muting instruments, placing performers carefully, etc.— but in the end they must often settle for less-than-ideal performances.

What can be done? The most ambitious solution would be to generate community/government and donor support for the construction of one or two choral centers or performance halls designed for smaller and medium-sized ensembles. When Seattle built its new Symphony Hall, it also built a smaller recital hall that is now used by many chamber ensembles, including choral groups. Chicago recently built a new downtown recital hall very much like what we are suggesting. Several cities in the U.S. have managed to transfer old buildings in central areas to nonprofit groups, to be remodeled and reborn as performance centers. David Morales, Director of Cantare Con Vivo, in Oakland, has been exploring the possibility of such a center in downtown Oakland, or elsewhere, which could include not only a performance space, but also rehearsal rooms and office space for independent choral groups.

Short of creating new performance spaces, we might make an effort to create a list of performing spaces available to choruses, with information about a range of attributes: rental cost, availability of parking, acoustic characteristics of the space, what style of music sounds best there, size of ensemble and audience accommodated, the nature and quality of any piano, organ or other instrument available, and more. When compiling editions of the San Francisco Bay Area Chorus Directory, Helene Whitson & Valerie Howard routinely solicit such information regarding rehearsal and performance spaces on the questionnaire, but do not consider it appropriate for inclusion in the Directory. The information they began to develop could be used as the basis for a new database or directory of choral performance spaces, if there are others in the choral community who think it is worth pursuing and would like to help.

Another possibility might be to explore more carefully with local academic institutions whether there might be any ways that the best performance spaces could be made available even on a very limited basis to local community choral ensembles. It would help to know more about the constraints which have usually seemed to render this impossible, and whether any choral directors inside or outside these academic institutions have any comments on the matter.

As choral participants, we tend to underrate our impact on our communities. One only has to read Chorus America’s 2003 monumental report, America’s Performing Art: A Study of Choruses, Choral Singers, and Their Impact, to see that choral participants could be doing a lot more to demand facilities and services for this art that contributes so much to enriching the artistic life of our various communities. Chorus America notes, “Choral singing is the top choice for participation in the performing arts by adults and children, with an estimated 28.5 million regularly performing in a chorus. The study also estimates the number of choruses in the U.S. to be 250,000, marking the first time the total number has been determined.” The Chorus America study also notes that “more people participate in choral singing than in any other performing art.” Yet when it comes to funding for the arts, the major recipients are always the symphony orchestras, opera companies, dance companies and theater companies.

In compiling the most recent edition of the San Francisco Bay Area Chorus Directory, and examining the list of choruses on the Choral Archive website, we have estimated that there are at least 25,000 people singing weekly in greater Bay Area choral groups. That is a large number of people. If we feel there is a need for better medium-sized concert halls, it seems as if we certainly should be able to organize to draw attention to this need, and find a way to work for the creation of such facilities. After all, we live in our communities and contribute to their economies and our art contributes to their artistic enrichment.

What do others in the choral community think about this? Have any of you who are choral directors, managers or singers had similar feelings about the performance spaces available to you? Have you experienced disappointment or frustration as an audience member for a choral performance because the acoustical problems of the hall made it difficult to hear the singers clearly? Does anyone have any other suggestions about things that might be done? We’d like to hear from you!

Bill & Helene Whitson
San Francisco Bay Area Choral Archive

Helene Whitson & her sister, Valerie Howard, are the compilers of the San Francisco Bay Area Choral Directory, 4th edition, 1999. Bill Whitson published the Directory, and maintains the SF Bay Area Choral Archive website, as well as serving as moderator of the Yahoo group, ba-choral. All three have sung in a variety of Bay Area choral groups over the last 40 years. They were honored for their work on behalf of the Bay Area choral community at the 2005 Annual Conference of Chorus America.

This site maintained by Bill Whitson, bwhitson@choralarchive.org
Last updated 8/20/08