Countering Pandemic, SFSO Elaborates Its SoundBox Digital Fare

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Despite requisite empty spaces, new music director Esa-Pekka Salonen has plotted a stylistically varied, and virtual, season with San Francisco Symphony Orchestra musicians and a visionary team of young “collaborative partners.”

SAN FRANCISCO – The San Francisco Symphony had a big transition in store for 2020 – the extravagant finale of Michael Tilson Thomas’ 25 years at the helm of the orchestra and the debut of a different yet equally progressive visionary, Esa-Pekka Salonen. All of that was wiped out by COVID-19 as the symphony world went digital in the face of a pandemic that closed down the concert halls for what still looks to be an open-ended period.

Like everyone else, the SFS had to adapt. First, they took the MTT farewell entirely online last June with a 25-day series of videos, tributes, and unreleased and recycled audio performances, culminating in a celebratory video farewell on the day that MTT’s last concert would have taken place. Then they took their time. The date of Salonen’s scuttled debut concert came and went. A sole digital concert last November titled Throughline amounted to a stylistically varied and stylishly directed virtual debut for Salonen and his new team of young “collaborative partners” including composer Nico Muhly – and a blueprint of what was likely to come.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, center top, with his collaborative partners, clockwise from top left: Claire Chase, Nicholas Brittel, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, Carol Reiley, Pekka Kuusisto, Esperanza Spalding, and Julia Bullock. (SFSO)

Now, at what would have been the halfway point of the 2020-21 season, the SFS has rolled out a whole suite of digital projects called SFSymphony+ that runs until the end of August.

The centerpiece is an expansion of the SoundBox series that started in December 2014 in the MTT days, taking place in a converted rehearsal hall toward the rear of Davies Symphony Hall. SoundBox was a hit from the start, attracting a younger, hipper audience on the edge of the Hayes Valley district with programs of mostly small-group new music at a modest price. It certainly makes logistical sense to utilize this space in COVID times. The stage is big and expansive, with plenty of social distancing room for small ensembles; it’s equipped with a state-of-the-art Meyer Constellation Sound System suitable for limitless tweaking.

On Feb. 4, SFSymphony+ opened with a subdued, Salonen-curated, half-hour SoundBox program entitled Nostalgia – an ironic word for a launch into the digital future – that was filmed last October. “Nostalgia is a longing to return home, but what if that home isn’t there anymore?” the caption on the digital program “book” wonders. “In SoundBox: Nostalgia, three composers look to a past that may or may not exist, while opening new portals to the future.” 

Freya Waley-Cohen’s ‘Conjure’ trio was part of a SoundBox program called ‘Nostalgia,’ curated by Salonen.

For the young British composer Freya Waley-Cohen, “nostalgia” seems to be something dark, spare, and austere. In the opening of her 12-minute string trio Conjure, a blurry forest is projected on the SoundBox screen. The piece enters a more animated central section, with musicians dissolving into nothing onscreen then reappearing, and soon retreats back into the doldrums. Violinist Yun Chu, violist Jonathan Vinocour, and cellist Jill Rachuy Brindel are the performers.

Missy Mazzoli (Caroline Tompkins)

Missy Mazzoli’s Vespers For Violin is a re-jiggered version of her Vespers For A New Dark Age for a larger ensemble in which she sampled various keyboards, voices, and strings, “drenched them in delay and distortion” (as she colorfully puts it), and made a recording for a soloist to play against. As performed by Polina Sedukh – often seen in multi-image shots in the empty rehearsal room – it’s an attractively meditative piece, with the solo violin sliding around the moody sustained electronic backing for about five minutes.

Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte was actually on the SFS schedule for its San Francisco premiere in April with Juraj Valčuha conducting. But after the season was canceled, Salonen salvaged it himself, leading a version for string octet that strikes a balance between the original string quartet version and its string orchestra expansion. The music is often repetitive in short fragments, converting to two quiet sections for pizzicato strings in the center and Glassian arpeggios in another section. A solo cello has the last word with about a minute of strummed broken chords while the abstract shapes onscreen twirl as in a kaleidoscope. Seems little to do about not much.

For all of director Steven Condiotti’s fancy camera angles and multiple images, the camera rarely focusing upon anyone for long in Entr’acte, I don’t really see how this program is a great leap beyond an ordinary music video. Perhaps it could be interpreted as deliberately reflecting the forced open-ended pause in activity that we are enduring, a frame for three modestly proportioned, modestly impactful works for musicians who by virtue of being string players don’t have to remove their masks. Rather than a portal to the future, this closed-in concert seems trapped in the gloomy present, waiting out the pandemic, unable to go home again.

Most of the schedule for SFSymphony+ comes with a paywall: $120 for the entire season through Aug. 31, or $15 à la carte per single event. There are seven SoundBox concerts on the menu, one per month, which is an expansion of the schedule in normal times. 

Julia Bullock (Dario Acosta)

A concert March 11 will be curated by soprano Julia Bullock, with collaborative partner jazz bassist/singer Esperanza Spalding contributing a piece. Salonen returns to curate a concert April 15 focusing upon minimalism, bringing with him the world premiere of his Saltat sobrius. This is noteworthy because Salonen steered clear of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s pioneering Minimalist Jukebox festivals when he was music director and now conductor laureate there. It wasn’t his aesthetic then, but here, he will go so far as to participate in Terry Riley’s genre-defining In C, playing a toy piano! Harpist/jazz vocalist Destiny Muhammad curates a concert May 27, composer Nico Muhly’s turn comes July 8, flutist Claire Chase is in charge of the Aug. 12 concert, and Salonen takes on the final episode of the series Aug. 26. 

Also part of the subscription are five world music concerts on the Currents series, which actually began last year during the pandemic. SFSymphony+ will also offer free streaming concerts that do not require a log-in. These consist of several chamber music concerts, and on Feb. 20 a Chinese New Year Virtual Celebration event took place.

As for seeing the entire San Francisco Symphony – or even a representative quorum – on your computer or phone, all I can say at this point is: Just sit tight.