The San Diego Symphony’s new Rady Shell at Jacobs Park opened last summer. It’s one of several new and renovated venues that orchestras nationwide have launched recently. Photo by Gary Payne.

In Brief | When the pandemic hit, many concert halls went quiet as orchestras pivoted to alternate venues and virtual presentations. During the lull, many orchestra halls got a facelift—sometimes much more—and others were built from scratch. The reasons range from improved accessibility and acoustics to infrastructure upgrades, new safety features, spaces for music education, and more.

Here’s a tour of concert hall projects in New York City and San Diego. Coming up in Symphony, look for a survey of what’s happening at orchestras from Florida and California to Missouri, Montana, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Texas.

One of the most talked-about events this fall season has been the reopening of David Geffen Hall, the New York Philharmonic’s home at Lincoln Center. which happened a year and a half ahead of schedule after a gut renovation. It might be the most prominent in a slew of recent and upcoming renovations and new concert halls and other spaces for orchestras. But the renovation of Geffen Hall is especially notable for having been achieved during the global pandemic, one of the most difficult times ever for the performing arts.

“The first time we heard the orchestra in the [renovated] hall, it was a very small audience, and everybody cried,” Philharmonic President and CEO Deborah Borda said in September, just a month before the hall opened to the public. “Of course, that was a very real emotion. There will be more emotion when we bring people in and they have a chance to experience it.” In mid-August, the orchestra began rehearsing in the nearly completed hall, adjusting to the new acoustic. Though the hall was still an active construction site at that point, finishing touches were nearly done. “At our top time, we had 750 people a day working in here,” Borda recalls of the $550 million makeover.

The renovation of David Geffen Hall transformed the concert hall, now dubbed the Wu Tsai Theater. Photo by Michael Moran.

At a full-orchestra rehearsal in the hall in September, when bass Peixin Chen—one of four solo singers in a Philharmonic Beethoven Ninth program—boomed out “O Freunde” in the fourth movement, it was a moment of real joy, a glorious, full sound that soared. The excitement among the Philharmonic musicians was palpable. “It’s just a very flattering sound,” I heard one violinist say to another during a rehearsal break. Borda had gotten similar feedback from the musicians. “Two comments stuck out in my mind in the first week,” she says. “One of our violists said, ‘It’s absolutely magical.’ I ran into one of our cellists on the street, and he said, ‘You feel like you’re embraced by the hall.’ They are so focused. It’s like getting a new instrument. You have to learn how to play it. They had played in the terrible old Geffen Hall. And now we have this very responsive space, a completely different sound.”

“It’s so wonderful to see the musicians have a place that they deserve,” says New York Philharmonic President and CEO Deborah Borda.

The building originally opened as Philharmonic Hall in the early 1960s; acoustics were disappointing from the get-go. Subsequent renovations and name changes (to Avery Fisher Hall and then to David Geffen Hall) happened over the years, but none of the acoustical adjustments were entirely successful.

Philharmonic Hall in September 1964. It was one of the first theaters to open at the brand-new Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts but was plagued by substandard acoustics. Photo by Bob Serating, courtesy of New York Philharmonic Archives.

The “new” David Geffen Hall opened in early October, with a week’s worth of special events from the Philharmonic and Lincoln Center, world premieres, and general acclaim. One of the biggest changes is the lobby, which is more open and welcoming, with the box office no longer walled off, and features a giant media wall and casual seating plus a (perhaps inevitable) café. In good weather, garage doors lift to connect Lincoln Center Plaza to the lobby. Curtains have been removed from the windows of the northeast corner of the building, facing Broadway, meaning the public can see what’s happening in a new “sidewalk studio” for educational and other activities. Inside the hall, the most immediately noticeable changes are visual: there are now 2,200 seats (500 fewer than before), wraparound seating runs behind the stage, and the audience and musicians are closer: the proscenium was eliminated, and the stage was moved forward 25 feet. Angles and sightlines are improved, colors are warmer. To address COVID-19 safety, there are improvements in air filtration.

At an event celebrating the reopening of David Geffen Hall this fall, left to right: New York Philharmonic President and CEO Deborah Borda, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts President and CEO Henry Timms, and Philharmonic Music Director Jaap van Zweden. Photo by Michael Moran.

Perhaps most crucially, the hall has at last lost its famously troublesome acoustic and gained a much better one—sharper, livelier, more transparent. The David Geffen Hall design team includes Diamond Schmitt Architects, led by Gary McCluskie, on the theater itself, renamed the Wu Tsai Theater in August; Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects│Partners, led by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, on the public spaces; acoustician Paul Scarbrough of Akustiks; and theater designer Joshua Dachs of Fisher Dachs Associates.

David Geffen Hall, the newly renovated home of the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center. Photo by Michael Moran.

At a pre-opening rehearsal that fine-tuned Geffen Hall’s new sound, Philharmonic Music Director Jaap van Zweden and acoustician Paul Scarbrough of Akustiks spoke with Philharmonic musicians. Photo by Michael Moran.

The redesign of Geffen Hall created a more welcoming lobby with a giant video wall, places to hang out, a café and restaurant, and more. Photo by Michael Moran.

In Borda’s view, the redesigned hall “is important for all New Yorkers. But it’s also important for the music world to have a great home for one of the very great orchestras of the world, the New York Philharmonic. I had worked on this project in the mid-1990s, and, frankly, left in frustration, because I didn’t see the will to move it forward.” Borda was the New York Philharmonic’s CEO back then, and moved to the Los Angeles Philharmonic to take the chief leadership position there. When she returned to the New York Philharmonic in 2017, she recalls, “There was a lead gift in place [for the renovation], and there was a real commitment to getting it done. And the hall had gotten sort of to the point of no return. It had to be done. It felt like a perfect karmic circle to return.” An original plan to redesign the hall, Borda notes, would have cost “well north of a billion [dollars] and had the orchestra out of the hall for literally a couple of years. That would have been a disaster for the orchestra and for New York.”

During a New York Philharmonic rehearsal, Principal Associate Concertmaster Sheryl Staples captures a moment in the newly renovated Geffen Hall with guest artist Emanuel Ax and Assistant Concertmaster Michelle Kim. Photo by Chris Lee.

To get the project completed, Borda describes “a combination of remarkably challenging factors: dealing with the new plan to put it forward, then suddenly having COVID hit in March of 2020, dealing with that, making the decision in the summer of 2020 with our partners at Lincoln Center that this was actually a moment we should treat as an opportunity, and to make, I think, a very courageous decision on everybody’s part to move forward and accelerate the project. That was a key moment in summer of 2020. Nobody knew what was happening: you remember how dark the times were then. So now I look back, having moved through the redesign of the hall, COVID, and what I call our nomadic season, which was very difficult—we performed in five different halls. The orchestra essentially hasn’t had a home since March of 2020. It’s so wonderful to see the musicians have a place that they deserve.”

California Dreaming

On the West Coast, the San Diego Symphony is handling two major construction projects, with a new building that has already opened and a top-to-bottom renovation that is currently in progress. This is an orchestra with an unusual and enviable real-estate situation: it has two substantial, very distinctive homes, one indoors in the city’s downtown, the other outdoors in a waterfront public park.

In August 2021, the big excitement was focused on the opening of the symphony’s new outdoor Rady Shell at Jacobs Park. Because of San Diego’s mild climate, during the pandemic the orchestra has been able to perform most of the year at the open-air space. The Shell is a permanent structure right on the waterfront in Embarcadero Marina Park South, where the orchestra used to assemble and disassemble a temporary venue each summer. Martha Gilmer, the orchestra’s CEO, says that the Rady Shell project took years of planning, with multiple civic partners. “We did a big analysis and then when the pandemic hit, we pushed accelerate,” Gilmer recalls.

San Diego Symphony CEO Martha Gilmer says that the new Rady Shell “opens the art form up to so many people, including families. Going forward, it’s critical that we are able to connect.”

When I spoke to Gilmer in May, it was the final weekend of the orchestra’s 2021-22 main-season schedule at the Shell, which featured Rafael Payare, the orchestra’s new music director, conducting Beethoven’s Ninth. “What excites me is that this is a place where nature and culture meet, a public park being activated as a cultural institution,” Gilmer says. “It’s part of the Port of San Diego and therefore California Lands Commission and the Coastal Commission.” Opening a concert space to the public is important to Gilmer. She had gotten a pre-opening tour of New York’s Geffen Hall, and was impressed by the transformation of the corner of the building into a space visible to anyone passing by. “They’re opening that whole area, which is very exciting,” she notes. The Rady Shell, she says, “opens the art form up to so many people, including families. People come to the show and they have their protocol: they bring their blankets, they know what they’re going to order, they have their seats set. It is very relaxed. Going forward, it’s critical that we are able to connect.”

“What excites me is that this is a place where nature and culture meet, a public park being activated as a cultural institution,” San Diego Symphony CEO Martha Gilmer says about the new Rady Shell. The orchestra in the midst of a $125 million renovation of its downtown home, Jacobs Music Center and Copley Symphony Hall. “That’s also very important to us, because the orchestra really needs both” venues, Gilmer says.

Meanwhile, the San Diego Symphony is in the midst of a $125 million renovation of its longtime downtown home, Jacobs Music Center with its Copley Symphony Hall. “That’s also very important to us, because the orchestra really needs both” venues, says Gilmer. The building opened in 1929 as the Fox Theatre, an Art Deco movie palace that was adapted over the years for the orchestra. Jacobs Music Center and Copley Symphony Hall are expected to reopen in November 2023. While they are closed, the San Diego Symphony has been performing at nine venues across the region, including the Rady Shell. The Jacobs Music Center overhaul team includes architect HGA in collaboration with acoustician Akustiks, and theater planners Schuler Shook. The renovation includes reconfiguring the Copley Symphony Hall stage, adding a “terrace” for choruses behind the orchestra (which will also allow new audience seating options), new finishes and seating, up-to-date tech—and improved acoustics for musicians and audiences. “We moved all the HVAC up above the space, hanging, so we could have almost 100 percent fresh air circulation and super-filtration and rapid exchanges,” Gilmer points out. The project will also update and expand support spaces for musicians as well as for audiences.

The interior of Copley Symphony Hall at Jacobs Music Center, the San Diego Symphony’s longtime home, during renovation this summer. Photo by Jennifer Melick.

During my visit this spring, the interior of the hall was stripped down to the bare walls. “But even stripped down,” Gilmer says, “it’s just spectacular. These 1920s movie halls—they’re just magical. You look up and you see all of that beautiful plasterwork and the chandeliers and all of that crystal that’s going to be restored. It’s exciting for us to preserve it.”

Rendering of the renovated Copley Symphony Hall at Jacobs Music Center. “These 1920s movie halls—they’re just magical,” says San Diego Symphony CEO Martha Gilmer.

This is the first article in a two-part series. Stay tuned for Part Two of “Building Boom” on