It's a potential game changer on the region's cultural scene: Two new concert halls are opening in the Bay Area, Bing Concert Hall at Stanford University and the SFJazz Center in San Francisco. Add in Sonoma State University's classy Weill Hall, which opened in September, 45 minutes from the Golden Gate Bridge, and the startling total spent on new performance venues is about $325 million -- in the middle of a recession.

Naturally, there's excitement surrounding the sold-out openings of the $111.9 million Bing (Jan. 11-12 with the San Francisco Symphony and Los Lobos, the rock band) and SFJazz's $64 million space (where comedian Bill Cosby emcees the star-studded opening concert Jan. 23). There's also nervousness: Will the halls live up to the expectations of audiences, ever thirstier for a range of comforts, state-of-the-art production capabilities and infallible acoustics?

The exterior of SFJAZZ Center under construction in San Francisco, on Friday, January 4, 2013. (LiPo Ching/Staff).
The exterior of SFJAZZ Center under construction in San Francisco, on Friday, January 4, 2013. (LiPo Ching/Staff). ( LiPo Ching )

"These days, the venue has to be part of the attraction," said Sam Berkow, the Los Angeles-based acoustician for the SFJazz Center. "It has to make you feel, 'Wow, I'm really glad I went to see that show there. That place feels great.' "

Appraisals are already in for 1,400-seat Weill Hall in the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park, which has cost $148 million to date. David Harrington, violinist with the Kronos Quartet, says Weill's acoustics are "fantastic, very warm and natural. The wood in that hall feels like an extension of your instrument." Patterned by architect William Rawn after Ozawa Hall at the Tanglewood performance complex in Massachusetts, the Sonoma State hall was completed with a $12 million gift from Sanford I. Weill, former chair of Citigroup. He hopes to establish a cultural tradition in Sonoma much like Tanglewood's, he said, "only with better weather and wine."


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Bing -- named for benefactors Helen and Peter Bing, class of '55 -- rises like an ochre-colored drum amid the developing arts district on the Stanford campus. Inside, it's a knockout: an elliptical valley with 842 seats arranged in terraces. The "vineyard-style" seating surrounds and flows down to the 3,200-square-foot stage, made of Alaskan yellow cedar, requested by acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota, because the material is said to vibrate like the back of a violin.

The SFJAZZ Center cafe under construction in San Francisco, on Friday, January 4, 2013. (LiPo Ching/Staff).
The SFJAZZ Center cafe under construction in San Francisco, on Friday, January 4, 2013. (LiPo Ching/Staff). ( LiPo Ching )

Toyota also designed the acoustics of the acclaimed Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Bing is smaller -- most seats are within 65 feet of the stage -- and has its own flair: steamed beech floors, maple seats stained to match and walls that curl like waves. Circling the hall are 10 white "sails" of fiber-reinforced concrete, stretching to a height of about 40 feet, which can function as video screens to create a 3-D environment for special events.

"Every day I want to visit it and see it and touch the walls," said Jenny Bilfield, executive and artistic director of Stanford Live, which has booked Bing's first season. This month's performers include superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Wilco percussionist Glenn Kotche and vocal ensemble Cappella Romana, the latter performing Byzantine chant amid acoustics electronically enhanced to simulate those of ancient Hagia Sophia cathedral in Istanbul.

The space went through 18 preliminary acoustical designs -- "stabs in the dark," said Bing architect Richard Olcott, of New York-based Ennead Architects. Finally, from the original rectangular-ish design emerged the ellipse, which got the go-ahead from Toyota. "We looked at a lot of imagery of water and rippling landscape, sand dunes, clouds -- no straight lines, just organic shapes," explained Olcott, whose firm has designed projects such as Zankel Hall inside Manhattan's Carnegie Hall. "This really is a departure. It's amazing what you can accomplish with computer software these days. We couldn't have done it five years ago."

The new SFJazz Center, down the block from the San Francisco Symphony and War Memorial Opera House, is another outside-the-box experiment. Designed by San Francisco architect Mark Cavagnero, it's also the baby of Randall Kline, founder and executive artistic director of the organization, which has moved its shows from venue to venue for 30 years now. The prospect of having a permanent home is putting Kline "over the freaking moon," he said.

With adjustable seating for an audience of 350 to 700, the center's main performance space is meant to provide the intimacy and vibe of a jazz club, along with the comforts and high-end sound of a modern hall. Berkow -- whose firm, SIA Acoustics, has designed sound for New York's Jazz at Lincoln Center -- has suffused the room with acoustic-friendly surfaces, including a 24-foot canopy over the stage to absorb, redirect and scatter sound with a broad "range of flexibility," he said.

Surrounding the thrust stage on three sides, the amphitheater-style seating will bring every audience member to within 55 feet of the performers. There's a cup holder beside every seat; the hall has three bars. Walls can be used for video projections, and the center has a sound studio and production capabilities for live or recorded streaming.

On Jan. 23, in addition to Cosby, the many performers will include pianists McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea, saxophonist Joshua Redman and bassist Esperanza Spalding. With glass wraparound walls on three sides of the building, those standing outdoors on the center's Fell Street side will enjoy a straight line of vision to the stage. The idea is that the center should merge with the community, inviting people to come in for coffee and a beignet at the cafe, run by trendy restaurateur Charles Phan -- and perhaps sample a show, too.

Let the music begin.

Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069. Read his stories and reviews at www.mercurynews.com/richard-scheinin. Follow him at Twitter.com/richardscheinin.

Bing Concert Hall

Opening: Jan. 11
Where: 327 Lasuen St. (off Campus Drive and near Galvez St.), Stanford University
Details: http://live.stanford.edu/bingconcerthall, 650-725-2787

SFJazz Center

Opening: Jan. 23
Where: 201 Franklin St. (at Fell), San Francisco
Details: www.sfjazz.org, 866-920-5299