A half-decade ago, San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, Music Director, transformed a warehouse nearby Davies Hall into a “Black Box” nightclub like an alternative universe to Davies Hall. The traditional hall’s competitive advantage is superior acoustics that SoundBox, basically still a warehouse in design, lacks. A main performance stage faces one long side of the rectangle, with a secondary stage on a short side and a synagogue-like Bimah in the middle. A few banquettes, many ottomans, banks of high chaired tables and standing room are available on a first come first served basis, with, drinks and snacks sold for consumption during performance as well as intermission.
A popular venture, Sound Box has played to full houses since its inception and could likely expand from a minimal bi-monthly schedule of two Friday and Saturday 9pm performances. The promise of alternative programming, showcasing elements of the larger orchestra, appeals. In an adult “Peter and the Wolf” format of an early SoundBox, Symphony members explained their instrument, for example the trombone and its role in the horns and the orchestra as a whole, through illustrative pieces, highlighting an instruments special features. From a focus on components of the symphony orchestra and their special potential, SoundBox has moved on to tackle special themes, as a chamber orchestra like entity with multi-media elements, including images projected on three walls and ceiling panels. In the current edition: white sheets wave, clock hands turn and metronomes tick. In addition to the projected visual element, (also possible with a drop screen in the main hall), hooded blue-man group-like figures, dressed in black, modern dance their way through the hall, depicting a distracted/ abstract dream state, lacking a linear story line. A verse reader, sitting at a desk on the Bimah, flanked by a book stack and a pen holder, denoting a site of literary production, contributes a linear-like counterpoint.
Such an expanded format, beyond music, concomitantly enlarged the directorial corps to include: Like Krikzeck, Lighting director; Adam Larsen, Video designer, and Chris Vitro, Sound. The evening opens on the side stage with red-gowned soprano, Eliza Bagg, sweetly, but a bit stiffly, channeling Debby Harry Blondie “Sound asleep.” This is a long way from the CBGB East Village scene and orders of magnitude laxer than Miley Cyrus’ later Saturday Night Live performance. Turning to the main stage, shimmering sheet visuals create a pleasantly soporific mood. Technically perfect violist, Nadia Sirota, sonorous evokes Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason’s “Sleep Variations. Upon its completion, projected typescript announces “You’re now in the dream state relax, have a drink see you on the other side.” Punctuated by loud ticking sounds from a miked metronome, the first intermission was not peaceful. You get the idea! Canned performance art; not “Ghost Ship” avante garde. At the 2nd intermission, the projection announces: “The bar is now open if you need a drink after what just happened” Indeed!
San Francisco Symphony: A Philharmonic for the Silicon Valley Metropolis?
SoundBox is great conceptually but likely too tied to the original San Francisco site to achieve its purpose of drawing in new audiences from across the Bay area. SoundBox patrons are more generationally mixed than the typically senior Davies Hall patrons but not likely more economically diverse, given a uniform $45 general admission ticket price augmented by a $350 producer pass offer, allowing early entry and access to best seats. A plea to Conductor, Curator Edwin Outwater: take SoundBox on the road to venues across the 7.6 million population Bay area, the virtual equivalent of New York City. Bring Ghost Ship type musical artists into a safe space to collaborate with the classical Symphony. Take a page from the LA Symphony’s outreach program, entrepreneured by violinist Vijay Gupta, recent recipient of a $625,000 Macarthur stipend to fulfill his Street Symphony vision that San Francisco Symphony’s new music director Esa Pekka Salonen, is doubtless familiar.
SoundBox is a worthy top down effort to diversify the Symphony but it needs bottom up energy and ideas. And new generation of classical musicians. Too many of the current crew, enthusiastic and comfortable in the main hall, look like they are going through SoundBox paces without energy or enthusiasm. Interest can’t be faked. No point to include those in the current crew who are more comfortable in a traditional venue. Crowd source, fund raise, and bring in a new cadre of Z generation musicians, scheduling sufficient performances to create at least half-time positions.
Create a network of Sound Boxes, utilizing traditional and non-traditional spaces across the Bay Area. Cycle SoundBox and classic programs around the region on regular basis, learning from the Lamplighters Gilbert and Sullivan Troupe peripatetic performances in the Yerba Buena, Walnut Creek, Mountainview and Livermore community theatres.
Break the BlackBox walls! Use a flatbed truck as a stage in good weather. Reprise the early Joseph Papp New York Shakespeare Festival of the 1950’s that moved to parks around the five boroughs before achieving a permanent Central Park summer location and a dedicated theater complex, carved out of the superseded Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) headquarters on Astor Place. (It was good to learn that HIAS, without its extensive building, is an organization still at work, recently in the news for assisting asylum seeking Central American migrants at the southern Border). After an encore of incoherent phrases in a seeming reprise of the 2001 sequence of similar ilk, a small boy, on the BlackBox screen, blurts out, “Boy you want do so much; you can do anything,” awakening us from “Dreamstate” with a hopeful metaphor for the Symphony’s future.
More about SoundBox-http://sfsoundbox.com
Photo credit Stefan Cohen