The San Francisco Symphony's SoundBox nightclub series started three years ago with funding from an anonymous donor to foster younger, newer audiences, and through a series of good choices and happy accidents, the monthly winter/spring concerts have turned into a phenomenal success, with $45 general admission tickets selling out online within minutes of being released. I've been to all but a couple of the concerts, featuring different curators and a shifting group of musicians from the SF Symphony's ranks. Some have been more successful than others, but all have demonstrated an exciting, adventurous energy, until last weekend's finale for the third season, which was a self-indulgent stinker.
One of the unwritten rules at SoundBox is that it's not a vanity production about the curator. Composers John Adams and Nathaniel Stookey have both been in charge, and their concerts featured some of their own extraordinary music, but it also featured others in generous ways. Last weekend the curator was SF Symphony Principal Trombone Tim Higgins, and as he mentioned at the beginning, "I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that tonight is basically a trombone recital. The good news is that you've probably never heard a trombone recital, good or bad."
What this entailed were a few interesting bits of music from real composers, performed by Higgins and other first chair friends of his from the orchestra, such as the marvelous percussionist Jacob Nissley above, who performed in a marimba, harpsichord and trombone trio called Altemusk, written by Higgins himself with lots of cribbing from a number of Baroque composers.
Higgins is a tremendously talented performer, but he's delusional about his skills as an arranger, which is a craft all of its own, and as a composer. I don't particularly blame him, but do wish somebody in management had advised him that the sophisticated audiences at SoundBox were used to brilliant music, and this concert did not fill the bill. Instead, we were treated to a number of obnoxious marketing videos, including a short pitch for a few of the "daring" concerts in next fall's regular SF Symphony season and a long video where Higgins compared mixing drinks to playing in an orchestra.
Violinists Alexander Barantschik and Mark Volkert joined an ensemble of other first-chair players in the finale of the first set, a sonata by the 17th century composer Bertali, and they were delightful as was the piece.
The second set started with Beethoven's 1814 Three Equali for Four Trombones, lugubrious music beautifully played. While watching the performers from inches away, I realized what was missing that I had always taken for granted at SoundBox concerts in terms of performers and composers, namely women. This concert was a serious sausage fest, and it felt wrong.
This was followed by another one of Higgins' arrangements, this time of Astor Piazzola's tango music, with a full chamber orchestra headed by a trombone and a soprano singing French poetry over Argentine music, which made no sense at all, particularly since there were no translations.
The lovely soloist was Sharon Reitkerk, Higgins' wife, and the dilution of Piazzola's style with the mushy French diction and the overweening trombone leading the ensemble was bizarre. Higgins introduced the piece by saying he couldn't pronounce the names of the French poems or they would sound like cheese, which clarified what was really irritating to me about the evening. One constant of the SoundBox phenomenon has been that the performers and curators have always talked up to the audience rather than down, and this was the opposite.
The final set started with the 2012 Slipstream for Trombone Solo and Loop Station by Florian Maier which at least offered the novelty of a soloist playing with their own soundtrack loop which was probably a first for many in the audience, even though the technique is fairly dated by contemporary music standards. This was followed by another one of Higgins' compositions, the 2015 Café Velocio for tuba and piano "using melodic material and Minimalist techniques from Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and original material composed in a traditional style." This was the final straw in banality and I ran out of the theater before the final piece. The SoundBox audience is something of a miracle, varied in age, sophisticated, willing to stand in long lines for a decent seat, and extremely attentive to the performers and interesting music. People buy tickets without even knowing what's going to be played, and this concert was a betrayal of the brand. If the Symphony wants to kill the organic wonder that is SoundBox, offer a few more concerts like this, and it will be dead.