Thursday, December 18, 2014
Saturday night the San Francisco Symphony premiered a new "late-night, experimental music performance space" called SoundBox in a large, undecorated, 50-foot-ceiling room at the back of Davies Hall that is primarily used as a rehearsal space for the San Francisco Opera. Knowing the room well from decades of Opera rehearsals, I was dubious about the proposition, but the evening turned out to be a fun, surprising, exuberant success on every level. The enchantment started with the sunken orchestra pit at the entrance to the hall which had been transformed into a cactus garden where performers created an ambient soundscape "derived from John Cage's Branches" by manipulating amplified plants.
The sound installation was the background for the first hour of drinking and socializing in the dark, theatrically lit room with comfortable, low-to-the-ground seating, flanked by a full bar with stand-up cocktail tables on one side and two performing stages on the other side.
The larger stage was surrounded by vertical screens while a smaller stage to the side was dominated by a huge screen that created the fourth wall of the room, all of them featuring projections by Adam Larsen that were very striking without competing with the music.
The theatricality extended to the contingent from the San Francisco Symphony Chorus who arrived singing in a procession as if we were in a cathedral as they intoned ancient liturgical music by "Anonymous" and Josquin des Prez (Plainchant and Kyrie from Missa Pange lingua). The chorus then jumped in time to Panda Chant II from a 1984 science fiction opera by Meredith Monk, complete with choreographed stomping and hand jive movement.
Attention then shifted to the smaller stage where five master percussionists, including Jacob Nissly above, played Steve Reich's 1973 minimalist masterpiece Music for Pieces of Wood. Watching the intense concentration of the performers as they tried to stay in or out of phase with each other was hypnotic.
What was unexpected was how quiet and attentive the audience was throughout the musical sections, which were broken up by two long intermissions for drinking and socializing. The older audiences at Davies Hall concerts tend to be quiet but burdened with constant coughing fits, particularly this time of year, while you could hear a pin drop during most of SoundBox's Saturday performances.
At the beginning of the concert, Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas explained how dead the natural acoustics of the room usually are and how they had been enhanced by the Berkeley based Meyer Sound Constellation Acoustic System. I was dubious about this too, because I usually hate amplification of classical music and my experiences at Davies Hall whenever they have used electronics has been awful. I also wasn't that impressed with the Meyer Sound system at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall. However, the discreet amplification at SoundBox was an unobtrusive marvel, especially since it changed properties for each musical number in a sort of sonic sampler.
The second act opened with the projection of a short, boring 1986 art film called Voice Windows by Steina featuring the incomparable voice of Joan La Barbara.
This was followed by the 1904 chamber piece Introduction and Allegro by Maurice Ravel played with grace and commitment by some of the finest musicians in the world about five feet from our ottomans. (Above are violinists Alexander Barantschik and Dan Carlson, violist Jonathan Vinocour, cellist Amos Yang, and clarinetist Crey Bell.)
The real star of the performance was harpist Doug Rioth above, flanked by Bell and flautist Tim Day.
Tilson Thomas then led a contingent of brass and percussionists in Varese's Integrales, a modernist landmark that sounded perfectly at home in the space. After another intermission, we were treated to the Magnificat from Monteverdi's 1610 Vespro della Beata Vergine, complete with chorus and soloists ranged around the room echoing each other as if they were in an Italian cathedral. The Meyer sound system came through again perfectly.
After a day of drunken Santas, racial justice protest, and a gay rugby tournament party (in the immortal words of Anna Russell, "I'm not making this up, you know"), this concert felt like the topping to an extraordinary San Francisco day. The SoundBox series continues with more concerts in early January, and tickets are only $25 for general admission. Click here to check it out.