Saturday, January 10, 2015
SoundBox, Take Two
Who could have predicted that the hottest tickets in San Francisco right now would be for musicians from the San Francisco Symphony playing in what is essentially a pop-up nightclub at the back of Davies Symphony Hall? After a successful premiere last month, SoundBox sold out its second outing this Friday and Saturday night, even though just about nobody in the audience knew what they were going to be hearing ahead of time.
The program started with a chamber string orchestra playing the final two movements of John Adams' Shaker Loops from 1978 in a taut, expert performance conducted by the young Joshua Gersen who looked like he was about to break into an ecstatic Shaker dance himself during the piece. Pictured above are violist Katie Kadarauch with cellists Margaret Tait and Amos Yang.
This was followed by a self-deprecating introduction by Symphony violinist and composer Mark Volkert above. The chamber orchestra was enhanced with woodwinds and percussion for two short movements from his 1987 Serenade, which sounded a lot like Stravinsky at his sprightliest.
Half the musicians then trooped through the audience with their instruments to a separate stage with a harpsichord on it for Heinrich Biber's, Batalia from 1673. The 13-minute compressed masterpiece depicts everything from a tavern where each instrument plays its own drinking song at the same time (250 years before Charles Ives) to a battle march and a final lament for a wounded soldier. Never having heard the piece before, it was an unexpected treat and the theatrical presentation was perfectly apt.
However, the otherwise fine projections all evening by Adam Larsen were a bit heavyhanded in Batalia, and in the future I would suggest putting any text on the top half of the screen because nobody in the audience could read the names of the various movements at the bottom because the performers were standing in front of them.
Part of the fun of SoundBox's intermissions are that you can wander the room and try to pick out people you know or want to know without having to exit into a lobby. After the first intermission, cellist Amos Yang gave a native-born San Francisco introduction to himself and played three movements from J.S. Bach's Suite #1 for Unaccompanied Cello along with a jolly piece called Julie-O by Turtle String Quartet cellist Mark Summer.
Tenor Nicholas Phan, who moved to San Francisco a couple of months ago, is a noted Benjamin Britten interpreter, and his singing of a quintet of songs from the 1939 Les Illuminations was so good that I wish they had programmed the entire song cycle. Phan is holding his finger up in the photo above because there was tumultous applause with one movement still left in the performance. The string orchestra conducted by Gersen below was also sensationally good in the Britten and made me wish his music was more of a Symphony staple.
One major caveat: Since there were no programs, and most people in the audience didn't speak French or have the poetry of Rimbaud memorized, it would have helped to have the French and English text projected on one of the screens during the performance. They don't need to follow along supertitle style, but a simple projection of each poem that people could either scan, study or ignore would enrich the experience immeasurably.
After another intermission, the evening ended with Darius Milhaud's 1919 Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit (The Cow on The Roof), a fractured deconstruction of Brazilian and Portuguese dance tunes that was enormously fun to hear, and if the smile on cellist Margaret Tait's face above was any indication, also fun to play. The next SoundBox performances will be in February and if you go to the corner of Hayes and Franklin tonight between 9 and 11, you can buy advance $25 tickets for those performances which will probably sell out too. Otherwise, click here for the SoundBox website.