Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Obsession and Creation at SoundBox

Two years ago the San Francisco Symphony initiated SoundBox, a monthly concert series designed to lure younger audiences with a hip, fresh, cutting-edge "nightclub-like setting" in a cavernous rehearsal space at the back of Davies Symphony Hall. There are innumerable reasons that the effort could and should have been a disaster, from condescension to cluelessness to institutional stodginess. The concerts instead have been a surprisingly organic success, selling out every month within minutes of going on sale and entertaining unusually quiet, attentive audiences that range from classical newbies to sophisticated music lovers.

Contributing enormously to every SoundBox concert have been the multimedia screens created by Adam Larsen, whose imagery ranges from understated to hyperactive, depending on the piece being performed. Most multimedia efforts combined with classical music have struck me as intrusive and distracting, but Larsen manages to avoid the usual pitfalls, enriching the music with intelligence and flair.

Larsen is part of a Los Angeles creative collaborative called Chromatic, which curated this season's final concerts, starting with an amusing art installation in the antechamber dedicated to Harry Partch (1901-1974), the gay California microtonal composer who invented many of his own instruments.

The sound artist Chris Kallmyer was laid out on a white square being serenaded with Bach partitas by violinist Andrew McIntosh while on an adjoining table the evening's conductor, Christopher Rountree, was whipping up a bowl of rose-petal jam with Chromatic designer Peabody Southwell.

Rountree later explained to the audience that Partch hated Bach and loved making rose-petal jam at his house in Petaluma every year so Kallmyer decided to bridge the love-hate divide with this installation.

The concert itself began with commissioned premieres by two brilliant young composers who have already been featured at SoundBox, Ted Hearne (above) and Nathaniel Stookey.

For the love of Charles Mingus, Hearne's short, bracing opener for six electric violins, was performed in front of the stage about two inches away from the audience, with Florin Parvulescu and Raushan Akhmedyarova above focusing intently on the difficult, pulsing music with its strange bowings and sound effects.

Stookey's Yield to Total Elation is a 20-minute homage to the San Francisco outsider artist Achilles G. Rizzoli who created fantastic architectural drawings in the 1930s of an imaginary city that were "symbolic portraits" of various friends.

During the performance, on a catwalk bisecting the audience, three dancers including Nicholas Korkos above were creating chalk outlines of their own imaginary city.

Stookey above also performed on an electro-acoustic stringed instrument created by Oliver DiCicco called the OOVE. According to Stookey's online notes, the instrument "provides the harmonic background from which YTTE emerges; later, the OOVE rejoins the orchestra, which has gone very far afield in the meantime, as though to remind us of that lineage." The instrument sounded somewhere between an organ, a theremin, and a synthesizer, and the entire piece was ambitious, architectural and beautiful, swelling to a satisfying, transcendental climax.

After intermission, we jumped back centuries with Purcell's obsessive 1680 Fantasia on One Note, with instrumentalists that included violist Jonathan Vinocour and cellist Barbara Bogatin above.

This was followed by a performance from soprano Marnie Breckenridge as Salome singing the magnificent 1675 aria Queste lagrime e sospiri from Italian composer Alessandro Stradella's oratorio Giovanni Battista. Breckinridge was in fine voice and her interaction with the dancers stunningly theatrical as she demanded the head of John the Baptist.

Rountree introduced the next piece, Frederic Rzewski's 1971 Attica, with an explanation for young people about the New York penitentiary riot which left scores of prisoners and guards dead after Governor Nelson Rockefeller ill-advisedly sent in troops during a hostage situation. He mentioned that the piece was democratically scored, in that the musicians were allowed within certain parameters to play whenever and however they wanted, and that the audience was encouraged to join vocalist and Chromatic co-founder Peabody Southwell who was intoning the musical phrase "Attica." (Pictured above are Chromatic director James Darrah and Marnie Breckenridge, who joined the singalong while sitting on the catwalk.)

Attica is the second section of a piece called Coming Together, and because of the subject matter I was expecting a harsh, brutal and dissonant sound. Instead, it was a sweet, hippie-dippie, hypnotically gorgeous tune repeating over and over, with Southwell intoning Attica as a prayerful chant with many in the audience joining in on their own. This included composer Ted Hearne above who wandered onto the stage and sang out full voice. It was an amazing experience that had me crying by the end, and after checking out other versions on YouTube I can attest that the orchestra and the audience gave what may have been the most soulful rendition of the music imaginable.

The third set was devoted to three pieces from Frank Zappa's final early 1990s work, Yellow Shark (click here for a YouTube concert of the entire album), which felt slightly anticlimactic after the previous performances even though the orchestra swelled to twice its size. To make room for all the extra players, the audience front rows were evicted. We were amusingly led to the side of the stage where there was illuminated signage designating the area as "VIP Seating" after being offered pieces of bread slathered with Rountree's freshly made rose-petal jam which was unexpectedly delicious. (Pictured above is Nicholas Pavkovic on keyboards.)

The entire evening felt simultaneously loose and structured, improvisatory and tightly honed, a perfect summation of West Coast experimentalism. The Chromatic group above did themselves proud and I hope they return soon.

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