Classical Cabaret: SFSO, MTT Turn Hip In SoundBox

Members of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus perform Meredith Monk’s Panda Chant II at SoundBox.  (Photos by Stefan Cohen)
Members of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus perform Meredith Monk’s ‘Panda Chant II’ at SoundBox.
(Photos by Stefan Cohen)
By Richard S. Ginell

SAN FRANCISCO — If you are a symphony orchestra executive, and you read about or see the shrinking numbers in dollars, cents, and bodies in the seats, naturally you wonder whether it’s time to shake up the act. Well, the San Francisco Symphony isn’t about to abandon its routine in Davies Symphony Hall any time soon, or at all, but the organization has added something new to its portfolio. It’s called SoundBox — and it is different, enormously stimulating, and potentially ground-breaking for symphony orchestras.

San Francisco Symphony percussionists perform Steve Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood.
San Francisco Symphony percussionists perform Steve Reich’s ‘Music for Pieces of Wood.’

SoundBox could be found Dec. 13 through a side door in the Davies building on Franklin Street, around the corner from the main entrance. The huge Zellerbach A rehearsal room — usually used by San Francisco Opera — has been converted into a large cabaret-cum-black-box theater space whose layout resembles the lounge of a new, hip, upscale urban hotel.

There were two portable stages, a huge projection screen and some smaller ones, banquettes, and dozens of low-slung tables surrounded by black, cushioned, cubic ottomans that serve as seating. Behind all of this is a full bar with circular high-top cocktail tables for standing room. In a major concession to the year 2014, there were no printed programs; info was projected briefly on a screen and available on smartphones at, with free Wi-Fi in the house. Somebody in charge had scouted out the neighborhood well: This venue fits right into the crowded, youthful Hayes Valley vibe on a weekend night.

All told, the space’s capacity is estimated to be about 450, and the opening event was sold out. No wonder: the general admission cover charge was a mere $25, a real bargain for an evening with Michael Tilson Thomas and members of the SFS and its chorus.

Tilson Thomas himself curated the concert, which consisted of a “musical tasting menu” of the very old and the relatively new, with a 300-year gap in between. But it’s not so new for MTT, for this kind of programming is a direct throwback to his formative experiences at Monday Evening Concerts in Los Angeles in the 1960s, where Perotin could be coupled with Boulez and no one would bat an eyelid. Recently, MTT has also presented similar adventurous programming in a club-style setting with “Pulse: Late Night” concerts by the New World Symphony in Miami Beach.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducting Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610.
Michael Tilson Thomas conducts a portion of Monteverdi’s ‘Vespro della Beata Vergine.’

The program was also designed to show off and test run the room’s new Meyer Sound Constellation System for sound reinforcement, which has already rescued a number of bad concert halls from purgatory. (MTT exuberantly described this space as “one of the deadest places in the world!”) If you experiment with amplification, better a dead hall than a live one, for then the electronics can take a blank canvas and fill in the ambiance without fighting acoustical reverberation.

For the most part, the 85-speaker Constellation System seems to have done it again. The sound at various levels of reverberation had luster and specific spatial location, was not overbearingly loud, and was at its most effective when you were hardly aware of its presence at all. On the medieval choral pieces, there was a four-second reverberation setting, yet the sound wasn’t congested or muddy as it would have been in a cathedral; the voices were startlingly clear-cut despite the long decay time.

Zellerbach A’s orchestra pit was used for a desert installation where, prior to the actual concert, a few musicians plucked on amplified cacti and such in an hour-long version of John Cage’s peaceful sonic indulgence, Branches. Then members of the chorus paraded through the room singing Mason Bates’ arrangement of a 13th-century Spanish chant, Stella Splendens in Monte, followed by a Josquin des Prez Kyrie and a dizzying leap forward in time to Meredith Monk’s tiny, monolithic choral stomp, Panda Chant II.

The scene promptly shifted to another stage where five percussionists rattled out Steve Reich’s Music For Pieces of Wood that synergistically built upon the rhythmic swing of the Monk piece as urban nightscapes lit up the screens. That was just the first third of the concert, thoughtfully divided into brief sections with two intermissions, which had the effect of relieving potential back and rump strain from those backless ottomans.

San Francisco Symphony members performing Ravel's Introduction and Allegro.
San Francisco Symphony members perform Ravel’s ‘Introduction and Allegro.’

In a retreat from the edge following a film featuring the burbling extended vocalizing of Joan La Barbara, Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro received a gorgeous performance from seven principals from the SFS (harpist Douglas Rioth delivered his extensive part expertly without a score), the sound luminously full and clear at close-up range, with impressionist paintings shown on the screens. Tilson Thomas shifted the focus from a Frenchman to a Frenchman in New York by leading a terrific, swiftly-paced, confrontational performance of Varèse’s Intégrales, which, despite its aggression, was pitched at a comfortable volume level as heard from two-thirds of the way back in the room.

For the last third of the program, Tilson Thomas lovingly led a chamber group from the SFS, members of the chorus and vocal soloists in one of his self-confessed “desert-island-disc pieces,” the concluding Magnificat from Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine. The strings made concessions to period-performance style by laying off the vibrato, and an antiphonal male vocal soloist’s echo part was very effectively balanced from his perch high up in the rear of the room. However, for the first time all evening, I could detect some digital glare in the timbre of the vocal soloists, and it grated somewhat on the ear; hopefully, that can be filtered out in the future.

Four more SoundBox programs are scheduled through the spring of 2015.  Jan. 9 and 10 spotlights the diverse interests of members of the SFS, the percussion section takes over on Feb. 13 and 14, composer Nathaniel Stookey and conductor Edwin Outwater curate the March 6 and 7 concerts, and composer Samuel Adams is in charge of the April 9 and 10 shows.

From the looks of the gathering on opening night, which trended toward a younger age rather than the usual symphony crowd, the SFS may be onto something. Let’s hope the programming remains this fresh and sassy.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.