Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Success of SoundBox

SoundBox, the San Francisco Symphony's attempt to draw in a younger crowd with late-evening, monthly concerts in a nightclub style setting, has been successful on a scale that probably nobody ever imagined. The Meyer Sound System has transformed an acoustically dead rehearsal stage at the back of Davies Hall into a reverberant concert hall, the lighting of the industrial looking space has been consistently evocative, and the performances have featured a lot of interesting contemporary music not usually heard on symphony programs. All the concerts have sold out, the audience does skew way younger, and the ambience is genuinely fun.

Credit should also go to the Symphony PR Department, specifically Louisa Spier and Amelia Kusar, who have spread the word everywhere, from an article in The New Yorker magazine to features in seemingly every media outlet in the country. The Seattle couple above were visiting friends in San Francisco, and they had heard the coolest thing to do in town was a SoundBox concert, so they stood outside on Franklin Street with a sign looking to buy any extra tickets. (It worked.) That is some serious buzz.

Composer Samuel Adams above was the curator of this week's concerts, thematically entitled Their Own Devices, which translated into five musical pieces from young composers that combined acoustic instruments with electronic sampling.

First up were Symphony percussionists Raymond Froehlich and Tom Hemphill, playing crotales, high pitched little cymbals, while accompanied by 6-channel, one-bit electronics in an amusing piece called Observations by Tristan Perich.

At times it was impossible to separate the sounds of the live crotales and the beeping electronics, which was half the fun, and the poker-faced percussionists did a brilliant job with the hypnotic, minimalist music. This was followed by Clara Ionnatta's Àphones for chamber orchestra and no electronics on an adjoining stage. The composer mentions in her notes that she was attempting to embrace the "extreme acoustics" of electronic music with acoustic instruments on which there was a lot of unconventional sawing away, but the piece felt strangely old-fashioned in its avant-garde mannerisms.

Pianist Sarah Cahill commissioned various composers this year to write tribute pieces for San Francisco composer Terry Riley's 80th birthday. One of them was Samuel Adams, who wrote Shade Studies for piano and echoing electronics, a gentle and unusually subtle acoustic/electronic combo that Sarah premiered during a set at the New Music Gathering at the SF Conservatory in January.

As she began to play, a videographer and a still photographer from Associated Press sat on the floor directly in front of us, which was fine, but the photographer was shooting with a noisy single lens reflex shutter, which was not. After a minute of listening to him destroy the gentle piano piece with his clicks, I tapped him on the shoulder and told him to stop, which he ignored. His videographer companion whispered, "We were invited here," and I whispered back, "Not to make noise you weren't." In this digital era, there is absolutely no reason to be using a noisy camera, particularly at a musical event that includes quiet dynamics. The phrase "lamestream media" immediately came to mind.

Without pause, Amos Yang followed Sarah on the same stage with Daniel Wohl's Saint Arc for cello augmented with electronics. The composer noted that he was trying to create "a cathedral of sound through sampling, inverting, and stretching the natural sound of the cello." Yang did a bang-up job and enough people were giving the AP guys the stink-eye that they left midway through the piece.

After another intermission where everyone was drinking and comparing notes about the music, a string orchestra augmented with electronic samples played Ted Hearne's 6-movement, 35-minute Law of Mosaics, which was lively and simply brilliant in its use of complex rhythms and textures. Movement III was entitled Climactic moments from “Adagio for Strings” and “The Four Seasons,” slowed down and layered on top of one another while Movement V was entitled Climactic moments from movement three, 3 times as slow as before. The orchestra sounded great in what was probably very tricky music to play.

The multimedia projections on three huge screens by Adam Larsen all season have been an integral part of SoundBox's success. I'm usually extremely critical of attempts to marry visual multimedia with live classical music because it can be so distracting in all the wrong ways, but Larsen has been remarkably restrained and subtle in his use of imagery, often settling for stills or moody abstraction. For Law of Mosaics, he finally decided to go flat-out psychedelic trippy and it worked, since Hearne's music is so strong that it held its own.

Friday was the final concert of the inaugural SoundBox season, as the space reverts back to a rehearsal stage for the San Francisco Opera. SoundBox's second season will start up again in December, and I can't wait to hear what's next. How about Lou Harrison's La Koro Sutro for American Gamelan and 100-person chorus singing in Esperanto? Anything seems possible.


Hattie said...

God that sounds super-cool. It's tough living in the provinces and only hearing about these concerts but unable to attend them.

Michael Strickland said...

Dear Hattie: Glad I am able to incite a little envy. Maybe we should house/apartment swap and I could do a week in Hawaii while you do a week of culture in the middle of San Francisco's Civic Center.