There’s a wonderful new place to listen to music in San Francisco, and it’s called SoundBox. Formerly an acoustically dead rehearsal area at the back of Davies Hall, it has been transformed through the miracles of deconstructed architecture, rock-concert lighting, bartenders-in-attendance, and the remarkable Meyer Sound Constellation system into a terrific setting for the San Francisco Symphony’s most experimental evenings.
I missed the December opening of this novelty, but I caught the January program on Saturday night, and it was fun from beginning to end. In order to get a seat (because at only $25 a ticket you are not guaranteed one), my companions and I arrived when the doors opened at 8:00 and had an hour to sit admiring the setting as we drank the cunningly curated cocktails. This is one of the great innovations: as at Le Poisson Rouge and Subculture in New York, SoundBox allows you to drink while you listen to classical music.
But SoundBox dwarfs those New York spaces. A massive, bare-bones, concrete-reinforced elongated cube, multiple stories in height, it has the feel of one of those converted Berlin warehouses devoted to art. Tables with adjoining stools and a series of round padded benches are sprinkled across the floor, leaving ample space in between for those who come late and have to stand with their drinks. The bar is at the back of the room and remains pleasingly inert during the actual performances. One stage is along the side and the other at the front, and the audience can turn to face them as they’re alternately used for the evening’s chamber-sized performances. Behind each stage are several screens on which images, light-shows, and words can be projected.
The performance I attended was led by Joshua Gersen, a young conductor who recently finished a stint as MTT’s assistant at the New World Symphony. His introductions were lively, intelligent, and to the point, as were those of the individual performers (and, in one case, composer) featured during the evening. There was a clear effort to connect with the audience, but it was never condescending; the conversation was simply part of the whole friendly atmosphere. The musical program, in order of appearance, consisted of selections from John Adams’s Shaker Loops; two movements from Mark Volkert’s Serenade (Volkert is an SFS violinist and was there to introduce as well as play in his composition); the whole of Heinrich Biber’s Battalia; part of Bach’s glorious First Cello Suite, plus a very recent Irish-inflected cello solo by Mark Summer (both gorgeously performed by SFS cellist Amos Yang); a sequence of songs from Britten’s Les Illuminations, with the Rimbaud words sung by visiting tenor Nicholas Phan; and the whole of Milhaud’s Le Boef sur le Toit, originally intended as the soundtrack for a Charlie Chaplin movie but hijacked by Jean Cocteau for a ballet.
The evening was labeled “Curiosities,” and both the twentieth-century Milhaud and the seventeenth-century Biber fell squarely into this category; the others pieces were just, to one degree or another, appealing and in some cases great pieces of music. My only real complaint is about the excerpting (it was painful to hear the Bach cut off in its prime), but I fear it is necessary to the kind of wide-ranging program SoundBox envisions—that is, you can’t cover this amount of new ground without cutting out length. And even with the cuts, the evening lasted until well after eleven, which lent it part of its excitement in this otherwise early-closing town.
Far from diluting my ability to listen, I found that the drinks, the talk (both from the stage and, during the intermissions, with my companions), and the lighting effects all enhanced the musical experience. It was great to be attending a classical concert with the kind of crowd—a young, attentive, but not overly serious crowd—that could afford the $25 tickets. Being in that huge space was marvelous, and getting to hear acoustically perfect music in it was amazing: a gift to concert-goers everywhere provided by Helen and John Meyer and their stunning invention. If this is the future of classical music, I am all for it.