published on November 12, 2021 - 3:26 PM
Written by Associated Press

(AP) — Yo-Yo Ma spent the better part of the pandemic playing cello to an online audience seeking solace in his music.

On Friday, he marked his return to San Francisco by playing an energetic Bach cello suite before a live audience to inaugurate the opening of a new performance center designed to increase public access to classical and jazz music.

Ma praised the top-notch acoustics in the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s Bowes Center for Performing Arts and the “safe space that actually gives the students and faculty … the preconditions for creativity.”

The towering campus in Civic Center was among a handful of construction projects that was allowed to continue during the pandemic to house students and provide them classrooms, a recording studio and a radio station under one roof.

The centerpiece of the $200 million building, however, is a street-level recital hall with floor-to-ceiling glass windows to let passersby watch students hone their craft. With the recital hall and two other performance spaces in the building, the conservatory plans to offer free admission to 90% of its concerts each year.

The goal was to create a welcoming space and broaden the audience to include those who may not be able afford to see and hear a live performance.

“It was very important to us to create a space that encourages access and breaks down silos,” the conservatory’s president, David Stull, said. “For too long, the world of classical music has been seen as exclusive, with a huge barrier to entry — in its transparency, the Bowes Center invites the public in and builds connection.”

The glass design starkly contrasts the imposing neoclassical columns featured in the nearby War Memorial and Performing Arts Center, home to the city’s opera and ballet companies. The center, named after the late venture capitalist and donor William K. Bowes, Jr., is also walking distance to the conservatory and performance halls for SFJAZZ and the San Francisco Symphony.

The top floor performance space where Ma and pianist Garrick Ohlsson played the music of Chopin overlooks City Hall and the bustling traffic on Van Ness Avenue.

Construction was allowed to move forward during the pandemic to meet the city’s housing shortage. About 20 tenants of an old apartment building previously on the site were offered rent-controlled units in the new building, and more than 400 students as well as faculty members have already moved in.

The hall was funded with money raised by the conservatory, including a $46 million donation from the family of late venture capitalist William K. Bowes, Jr. Construction began in 2018 and the facility was set to open last year before pandemic supply chain issues slowed it down.

Mayor London Breed called the center a “true jewel” for the city and said she supported the project since its inception “not just because of the amazing concert halls where you could have these experiences with these incredible views, but because it provided an opportunity to help students.”

She joked that when she wants to play hooky, she can walk across the street from her office to enjoy a free concert.


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