ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

SoundBox—SF Symphony’s new space for musical experimentation

The atmosphere Saturday night at the opening of SoundBox, San Francisco’s Symphony’s new experimental space for music.  Ravel’s “Introduction and Allegro” performed by Alexander Barantschik, Dan Carlson, Jonathan Vinocour, Amos Young, Tim Day, Carey Bell, Doug Rioth.  Video projections by Adam Larsen.  Photo: courtesy SFS

The atmosphere Saturday night at the opening of SoundBox, San Francisco’s Symphony’s new experimental space for music. Ravel’s “Introduction and Allegro” performed by Alexander Barantschik, Dan Carlson, Jonathan Vinocour, Amos Young, Tim Day, Carey Bell, Doug Rioth. Video projections by Adam Larsen. Photo: courtesy SFS

Christmas started early for ARThound when a dear friend invited me to Saturday night’s unveiling of SoundBox, MTT’s (Michael Tilson Thomas’) and San Francisco Symphony’s (SFS) newest venture.  SoundBox was designed to fill a gap in Bay Area music scene by providing an experimental space where anything musical can happen and to engage a younger, hipper audience with SFS and serious music.  Judging from Saturday’s thrilling reception which enthralled its sellout crowd of 450, Soundbox will do all that and more.  It also seems poised to give our brilliant but nerdy MTT some street swagger, the kind of coolness cred that he’s been aching for while collecting all those Grammies for classical recordings.  If you haven’t heard, SoundBox is a huge refurbished music space at 300 Franklin Street (in San Francisco). Formerly known as Zellerbach A, it was one of SFS’s most dour on-site rehearsal spaces, ironically renowned for its dead sound.

With generous patron funding and the board’s desire to revision SFS’ audience outreach, the cavernous space was entirely revamped.  Berkeley’s Meyer Sound was engaged to install its patented multi-speaker “Constellation” system, transforming the space into a virtual sound lab.  Now, with the push of touchscreen button, the venue can seamlessly tweak its acoustics (reverberation and decay times) for various pieces in a performance allowing otherworldly sounds to emerge from its tremendously talented SFS musicians and choral members.  Add state-of-the-art video projection capacity, making for an incredible visual experience, sleek quilted leather ottoman and low tables (even the furnishings will be tweaked with each performance), a fully-stocked bar serving thematic cocktails and innovative cuisine—wella! SoundBox has the grit of an European art house, the verve of a sophisticated nightclub, the acoustics of a world class concert hall, and, as if it needs to be said, the world’s best musicians playing tunes exquisitely curated by MTT.

Combining the excitement of an art happening with the verve of a sophisticated nightclub, the acoustics of a world class concert hall, and adventurous music spanning ten centuries, Saturday night’s opening of SoundBox will be long remembered. Photo: courtesy SFS.

Combining the excitement of an art happening with the verve of a sophisticated nightclub, the acoustics of a world class concert hall, and adventurous music spanning ten centuries, Saturday night’s opening of SoundBox will be long remembered. Photo: courtesy SFS.

On Saturday, 7:45PM, the crowd was already lining up on Franklin Street.  The buzz: no one knew exactly what to expect but we were all excited by the program we’d read about online and the promise of road-testing something completely new.  The pre-concert hour was dedicated to John Cage, who believed that every sound can be music, and featured a musical feast of his “Branches,” featuring electronically amplified giant cacti, and “Inlets” which coaxed sounds from shells filled with water that gurgled when moved and from amplified burning pinecones.  As people entered the darkened foyer of Soundbox and were confronted with Cage’s music, they passed by a curious gallery space, specially curated by MTT, that included beautifully lit minimalist arrays of  live cacti, a table of sea shells in a pool of water and colorful huge multi-layered projections of cacti.  Wow…felt like entering one of those East European art happenings I’d covered in the 1980’s.  Once we passed through a closed black door,  we entered the spacious main hall, which offered a hip but relaxed atmosphere—two low wooden platforms served stages and lots of low leather seating that could be easily re-arranged.   People were free to amble about and get a drink or just settle in and get busy with their phones and texting.

The inaugural run, called “Extremities,” kicked off dramatically with “Stella splendens in monte,” a brief anonymous Spanish work (local composer Mason Bates contributed the percussion arrangements.)  The SFS chorus, in flowing robes, entered from the back of the hall, and made a dramatic procession to the stage, their lyrical voices swelling to fill every corner of the space.  As they passed by each of us, we got a sampling of each singer’s individual voice.  From there, it only got better—a very well-thought sonic and visual feast was about to unfold and we were ravenous for it.  The audience snapped their fingers, clapped, yowled and tossed their exquisite locks…and the musicians beamed with pride.  A glowing MTT looked like he’d dropped a decade as he engaged with the audience in a very heartfelt way, talking about musical choices and the potential of the space.

Steve Reich’s “Music for Pieces of Wood,” performed by members of the SF Symphony Percussion Section at SoundBox.  From L to R: Tom Hemphill (from Sonoma County), James Lee Wyatt III, Victor Avdienko, Jacob Nissly, Raymond Froehlich. Photo: courtesy SFS

Steve Reich’s “Music for Pieces of Wood,” performed by members of the SF Symphony
Percussion Section at SoundBox. From L to R: Tom Hemphill (from Sonoma County), James Lee Wyatt III, Victor Avdienko, Jacob Nissly, Raymond Froehlich. Photo: courtesy SFS

Highpoints for ARThound:  Steve Reich’s minimalist “Music for Pieces of Wood” featured five SFS percussionists with tuned hardwood claves creating a pulsing bed of rhythmically complex continuous sound.  This reminded me of the miraculous frog concerto I am treated to in my pond in Sonoma County every time a serious storm blows through.  After 8 minutes of this mesmerizing sound, which was accompanied by projections of Adam Larsen’s images of a New York skyline, we were all in trance mode.  When it ended, and everyone stopped playing, we were left with a very perceptible silence, a void in the acoustic atmosphere that left us all profoundly aware of the power of sound to inflate and deflate the psyche.

Ravel’s exquisite “Introduction and Allegro” (1905) shimmered and glowed when played by a small ensemble of seven SFS musicians including principal harpist Douglas Rioth and concertmaster Sasha Barantschik whose beloved 1742 Guarnerius del Gesù (“The David”) cast a spell over the audience, some of whom swept away tears.  The chamber piece showcased the space’s ability to tease out nuances in the contrasting sonorities.  The velvety woodwinds, the percussive harp and the warm resonance of the strings were all so clear, so distinct, that I felt I was getting a personal introduction to the possibilities of these instruments.

One of the evening’s hip visuals was the Nordic visual art pioneer, Steina’s (Steina Vasulka’s), seven minute video, “Voice Windows” (1986), featuring the voice of Joan La Barbara.  The short engrossing film was co-presented by SFS and SFMOMA and points to the limitless possibilities for future collaboration in a space like this.  Since the early 1970’s, Steina, in collaboration with Woody Vasulka, has explored intricate transformations of vision, space and sound, through digital technologies, mechanical devices and natural landscape. “Voice Windows” was an exquisite and haunting example of her artistry in manipulating digital and camera-generated images and layering that with “real” and altered sound.

Beaming MTT (Michael Tilson Thomas) conducts members of the SF Symphony and Chorus in Monteverdi’s “Magnificat” (1610) from “Vespro della Beata Vergine.”  Photo: courtesy SFS

Beaming MTT (Michael Tilson Thomas) conducts members of the SF Symphony and Chorus in Monteverdi’s “Magnificat” (1610) from “Vespro della Beata Vergine.” Photo: courtesy SFS

After two intermissions, the evening closed with Monteverdi’s glorious “Magnificat” (1610) from Vespro della Beata Vergine.  It is one of the eight most ancient Christian hymns and is taken directly from the Gospel of Luke where the Virgin Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth who is pregnant with the future John the Baptist.  When Elizabeth praises Mary for her faith, Mary sings the “Magnificat” in response.  Talk about immersive—the 19 minute piece featured soloists, the chorus and orchestra, all in rapturous splendor with gorgeous golden-hued projections of a Venetian church enhancing the mood.

Details: The next Sound Box performance, “Curiosities,” is January 9 and 10th, 2015.  Doors open at 8 PM and performance starts at 9 PM.  Tickets on sale now: $25 for open seating.  The space accommodates 450 and will sell out quickly.  The SoundBox website is not working correctly. Call the SFS Box office (415) 864-6000 to purchase tickets.  SoundBox is located at 300 Franklin Street, San Francisco, CA.  Parking: (is hell) Performing Arts Garage (360 Grove Street) or Civic Center Garage (between Polk, Larkin, Grove and McAllister).

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December 15, 2014 Posted by | Art, Chamber Music, Classical Music, Jazz Music, SFMOMA, Symphony | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dark, Thrilling Opera—San Francisco Symphony’s “Peter Grimes” runs Thursday, Friday, Sunday at Davies Symphony Hall

 

Michael Tilson Thomas leads over 200 members of the SF Symphony, the SFS Chorus in three semi-staged performances of Benjamin Britten’s  opera, “Peter Grimes,” which features engrossing panoramic floor-to-ceiling video projections by cinematographer/filmmaker Adam Larsen, directed by James Darrah.  Heldentenor Stuart Skelton sings the title role.  With this opera, Britten reinvented the possibilities of musical language—sea breeze, gull in flight, tempest and glittering dawn.  This is SFS’ first performance of the complete “Peter Grimes.” Photo: courtesy SF Symphony.

Michael Tilson Thomas leads over 200 members of the SF Symphony, the SFS Chorus in three semi-staged performances of Benjamin Britten’s opera, “Peter Grimes,” which features engrossing panoramic floor-to-ceiling video projections by cinematographer/filmmaker Adam Larsen, directed by James Darrah. Heldentenor Stuart Skelton sings the title role. With this opera, Britten reinvented the possibilities of musical language—sea breeze, gull in flight, tempest and glittering dawn. This is SFS’ first performance of the complete “Peter Grimes.” Photo: courtesy SF Symphony.

Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) conclude the 2013-24 season and their celebration of the centenary of British composer Benjamin Britten with three semi-staged performances of his thrilling opera “Peter Grimes” (Thursday, Friday, Sunday) and a special concert, Four Sea Interludes (Saturday), accompanied by a video installation by Tal Rosner which is paired with excerpts from Britten’s exotic The Prince of The Pagoda Suite.

I’ve never heard Britten’s music performed live and I am very visually oriented, so I am looking forward to the enlivening projections which will add meaning of their own.  I first heard the name Benjamin Britten in a Keynesian macroeconomic theory course at Cal.  John Maynard Keynes, the influential British economist, thinker, and member of the Bloomsbury Group, was very keen on culture.  In the early 1940’s, he proposed (and chaired) an “Arts Council” that established the initial foundation for a system of permanent State patronage of the arts.  As you may recall, the premise behind Keynesian theory was that increased government spending (and lower taxes) would stimulate demand and pull an economy out of a Depression.  The Arts Council initially gave over half its money (grants of public funds) to music, especially classical music and opera.  Benjamin Brittan’s now famous opera, “Peter Grimes,” was first funded through a generous grant given to the Sadler’s Wells theatre to support its emergence as a national opera house charged with embodying the British national character and producing operas that were more accessible than prewar grand opera had been.

“Peter Grimes” had its premiere in June 1945, between VE Day and VJ Day, and the audience’s enthusiastic approval was taken for a political demonstration, so the curtain was brought down early.  The opera, which is based on a poem by George Crabbe, captured something new musically while depicting the epic psychic struggle of a man against his own destructive potential and the bitter sting of alienation, themes that became very familiar in Britain in the years to come.  How appropriate that Britten, who wrote for the people, and was somewhat under the radar before WWII, shot into the limelight with this story of a fisherman at odds with society.  The opera went on to immense success and Britten, as a result, became quite wealthy. The issues (from a macro theory perspective) were that Britten was part of the creation of a new state-funded system of arts patronage and he went on to invest his considerable personal earnings outside the country.  In researching Britten, this vivid memory surfaced.  Of course, SFS promises a revolutionary production of “Grimes,” dazzlingly staged—a grim but rapturous experience.

Sneak Peek of Peter Grimes with the SF Symphony

New Ground for SFS—Video projections, now commonplace in fully staged opera, are also trending in symphony halls across the country. The term “semi-staged” is not synonymous for “projection-based,” however, and “Peter Grimes” marks SFS’ first foray into an opera performance that combines video projections with minimal set staging.  Los Angeles-based director, artist and costume designer, James Darrah and New York-based artist, projection designer and filmmaker, Adam Larsen promise dramatic staging like a “big curved sail with scenes that capture the setting of an old-world fishing village and volatility of the sea.” The video will be projected onto a panoramic floor-to-ceiling scrim that encompasses the stage which has been extended and floated over a few rows of center seats to allow for extra performance space and proximity to viewers.

Darrah and Larsen collaborated in SFS’ January 2013 production of Henrik Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt,” creating vivid projections that evoked the vast Norwegian landscape and served to counterbalance the smaller stage which accommodated the orchestra and singing cast, one of whom was a dancer. The relative placement of the orchestra, singers and set props vis-à-vis the projection screens are just one issue involved in the production.  New York Times music critic Zachary Woolfe gives a very readable accounting of the state of semi-staged opera in “Giving a Semi-Hearty Cheer for Semi-Staged Opera,” NYT, June 13, 2014.  Attending a flurry of recent performances across the country led him to ponder where the drama is located in an operatic performance and what kind of production brings it out most effectively.  He asks, “Does paring a work down to the bare score make it more potent, or do theatrical trappings enrich the experience?” On numerous occasions, MTT has enthusiastically affirmed his commitment to using new technology to enliven performances. It all makes sense provided he can maintain his sensitivity to the music-making as people begin to factor in the look as well as the sound of a performance.

Timelapse video of the installation of immersive sets and panoramic video screens for Peter Grimes at Davies Symphony Hall

Performance Details:  Peter Grimes: A Multimedia Semi-staged Event is Thursday, June 26, 2014 at 8 PM; Friday, June 27 at 8 PM; and Sunday, June 29 at 2 PM with  a pre-performance talk by Peter Grunberg one hour before each performance.  Purchase tickets online here or phone SFS Box Office at 415.864-6000.

Britten: Four Sea Interludes with Video by Tal Rosner is Sat, June 28, 2014 at 8 PM with pre-performance talk by Laura Stanfield Prichard at 7 PM.  Purchase tickets online here or phone SFS Box Office at 415.864-6000.

Getting to Davies:  Davies Symphony Hall is located at 201 Van Ness Avenue at Grove Street, in San Francisco’s Civic Center, just across the street from City Hall.  The main entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street.  Driving to San Francisco and Parking: Be sure to allow ample time when driving into San Francisco on the weekend and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge—there is frequently congestion from Sausalito through the toll-plaza.  Arrive early at your parking garage of choice because those also fill up on weekends.  Recommended Garages:  Two garages are very close to Davies— the Performing Arts Garage (1/2 block)(Grove Street between Franklin and Gough Streets) and Civic Center Garage (roughly 2 blocks) (McAllister Street between Polk and Larkin Streets) (both have flat $15 pay cash as you enter policy on performance nights)

June 24, 2014 Posted by | Art, Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment