By Joe Ferguson
Outside the San Francisco Symphony Hall there are little girls with hair in ringlets. They wear blue or purple or red velvet skirts over shiny, new shoes. Their brothers, hair parted on the side, wear crested navy blue sport coats over tan pants and brown loafers. They stand beside their parents, who all seem to know each other. The children are well-behaved, but pensively eye a guardrail as if it were a piece of playground equipment. I’m envious of their frustration.
I would have loved to have been bored standing outside of a concert hall, but I never heard a symphony as a child. I grew up in a rodeo town where the only music I heard were off-tune hymns on Sunday or Hank Williams blaring from the open window of a rusty pickup.
I tried to correct my cultural short comings in college by attending small, free concerts given by the school orchestra. After graduating I had money, so I drove to the nearest big city and bought an over-priced ticket to the symphony. The hall had the highest ceiling I had ever seen, bordered on the sides with box seats holding smartly-dressed patrons. I took my seat at the rear of the cavernous theater. The orchestra began playing, and it was…okay.
I thought the problem was mine. How could I not be impressed by the grandeur of the hall and technical competence of the musicians? I attended many more concerts, hellbent on correcting my artistic and cultural deficits. Over the years, however, I stopped going. I never grew to appreciate the experience, preferring instead to listen to classical music through the headphones of my smartphone.
When I heard about a new performance venue for the symphony in San Francisco, I was doubtful. There was a SciArt angle, however, so I decided to revisit a youthful aspiration.
SoundBox is an experimental performance space inside Davies Symphony Hall. It is intimate, compared to its adjacent big sister, accommodating roughly 500 people. The interior is industrial in appearance, with exposed girders, a/c vents, and wiring. The venue has replaced traditional theater seating with banquettes, ottomans, barstools, café tables, and high top cocktail tables. There are multiple stages set close to the audience, including one in the center of the seating area. Large video screens are mounted at the front, side, and on the ceiling. Visitors don’t need to step outside during intermission—there is a bar offering beer, wine, mixed drinks, and small bites during the course of the performance. Attendance is limited to those 21 years and older.
Macro/Micro was billed as “a musical journey exploring the vast and intimate duality of the universe.” It was sold out almost as soon as it was advertised. After navigating the long line to enter, I grabbed a beer and took a seat on a leather ottoman next to a small table with a candle. The lights dimmed, a brief introduction was given, and the performance began.
Part 1—titled Horizons—featured Haydn’s Le Matin by a chamber orchestra, Vaughan Williams’ Brendon Hill on strings and piano with tenor William Ferguson, and Christopher Rouse’s Ku-Ka-limoku by a percussion ensemble. Video works displayed during the performance shared a common horizon line, evolving between a bleak Alaskan tundra, a sunrise in the Age of Enlightenment, an English meadow at midday, and a Hawaiian sunset.
Part II--South America—featured selections from Gabriela Lena Frank’s Milagros on string quartet, Golijov’s Lúa descolorida on string orchestra with a haunting soprano performance by Marnie Breckenridge, and more from Gabriela Lena Frank on string quartet. Video during the performance depicted different treatments of South American environments, contrasting folk scenes with mythology.
I was most looking forward to Part III, titled Technology and Biology. During the intermission field recordings of techno insect noises and sounds of the Voyager I satellite leaving Earth filled the theater. The performance began with two works by Bach featured on the Golden Record aboard Voyager 1. Gavotte en rondeau from Partita No. 3 in E Major on solo violin by Nadya Tichman was first—her performance was made all the more poignant by a video projection of Voyager 1 slowly traversing the ceiling’s video screens directly over her head. This was followed by Prelude and Fugue No. 1 in C Major from Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2 on keyboard by Robin Sutherland. Greetings from the Children of Earth from Voyager I, a recorded interlude was next. The final piece of the evening was Mason Bates’ The Rise of Exotic Computing on chamber orchestra and laptop. During the final piece, the theater’s screens showed circuitry boards overlaid with microbes.
The acoustic performances were complemented by a uniquely-designed Meyer Sound Constellation. Dozens of microphones constantly sampled the space to return a rich, auditory environment regardless of shifting performance locations or where one was seated.
The San Francisco Symphony has attempted to re-invent the traditional symphony experience with SoundBox. Gone from the space is an effort to overwhelm or impress—it has been replaced with an intimate and casual environment that encourages engagement among audience members and with the artists. There was no staunch grip on convention and tradition. The performances embraced the classical and the avant garde with equal ease and competence.
Macro/Micro was an affecting performance that easily strode the distance between classical and contemporary music, as well as mid-20th to 21st century science and technology. In that way of bridging the old and new it was a perfect fit, as well as reflection, of modern San Francisco.
My early struggles with the symphony were not with the music, but with the experience which seemed alien and, admittedly, elitist. The price of a ticket to SoundBox is within reach of most—there are no box seats, and denim seems to be the fabric of choice for those in attendance. The San Francisco Symphony has made an effort to make these performances welcoming, and chosen material that engages its unique audience. I left that evening not overwhelmed, but pleasantly satisfied, engaged, and with much on which to reflect.
The next show for SoundBox is Emergent, scheduled February 10th and 11th.