Monday, February 16, 2015


The SoundBox audience at intermission.
(photo by me)

SoundBox is SFS's recent initiative to create an alternative space for performances of repertory that the full orchestra doesn't usually play, in a less formal environment. I was skeptical, on grounds of "I am not the intended audience."

So here I am, eating my words after attending the performance of Friday, February 13. It was an all-percussion program, and I was lured in, among other things, by the presence of Steven Schick (SFCMP artistic director) on the program. And also by Jacob Nissly, SFS principal percussionist, and the program.

About that 9 p.m. start time. If you're attending, you should get there at or before 8, because that is how you get a comfortable seat. There are two types of seating: tall bar stools at waist-high tables, and low ottomans. And there was a line from the corner of Hayes and Gough practically to Grove at 8 p.m. because of the festival seating.

I probably would have had no problem getting a seat, even as the 80th or so person in line, if I hadn't stopped to look at the percussion display in the pit. (Yes, pit: SoundBox is in a space that for much of the year is used as rehearsal space by San Francisco Opera. It is configured with a pit, a proscenium, and an area the size of the War Memorial Opera House stage.) Some of the percussion was hands-off, including the bass drum, wind machine, and thunder sheet, but you could play with sleigh bells, wood blocks, claves, maracas, and other hand-held instruments. And who doesn't like to make a nice loud noise???

In any event, the space and lighting are industrial; that is, there's plenty of space, a very high ceiling, and fairly dim lighting. The "stage" area is used for the performance and the audience. There are three stages for the performers, one dead center, one against a long wall of the room (where the proscenium is) and one against a short wall. There's a bar on the other short wall. (And the specialty cocktail I had was excellent, better than the Tom Collins I had with dinner.)

The two side stages have screens for projections, and the visuals during the show were entertaining, appropriate, and not at all distracting. I especially liked the straight-overhead camera feed of the gongs and the percussionists' hands and sticks during Wenjing Guo’s Parade (Xiang); it was a real thrill having two visual perspectives on the piece. You could just understand what was going on (and how remarkable the Rootstock percussion trio is) much better from the close-up perspective, because you could see every last strike on the gongs.

Rootstock, during Parade (Xiang)
Kristen Loken, courtesy San Francisco Symphony

And on to the music, a terrific program. Jacob Nissly opened with his own transcription of Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint. This was written for jazz guitarist Pat Metheny; Nissly transcribed it for marimba and vibes. Parts were pre-recorded, and how the recordings interacted with the live instruments was part of the fun. Very beautiful and beautifully played. This was followed by Mark Applebaum's wonderful Aphasia, performed by Steven Schick. The performer makes no sounds during this; instead, his role is to perform a repertory of gestures to seemly control or respond to a pre-recorded vocal and electronic track. I've seen Schick do this before; he is brilliant, just unbelievably physical and funny. Part of the score was projected on stage, and a pair of spotlights shone up at Schick from foot level, projecting him, shadow-puppet-like, on the screen behind him.

Steven Schick performing Aphasia
Kristen Loken, courtesy San Francisco Symphony

After an intermission came Lei Liang's Trans, played and conducted by Schick. What was he conducting? The audience. He instructed us to pick up a large and small stone from the stones scattered on tables, or in piles, all over the space, and told us how exactly to play them to obtain the collective sound of gently falling rain; he told us what his conducting gestures would mean. The piece was beautiful colored - and with not a lot of instruments, either - and I gotta say, audience participation in the music is just genius, a fabulous thing to have on a program such as this.

Then came Parade (Xisang), played on six Chinese gongs that looked to be flat on a table. Wonderful piece, in that you could practically see the movements of the parade in front of you; I would swear I could have spotted the lion dance, too. I loved the projections, seeing the work unfold and the interactions among the players from a great vantage point. 

After the second intermission - during which I got that cocktail - came Steve Reich's Clapping Music, which would have made a great audience participation piece if the whole audience had the ability to read music. Wonderful stuff; you can so clearly hear the parts go in and out of phase. Schick, Tom Hemphill, Raymond Froelich, and Loren Mach performed this one.

Then Jacob Nissly (marimba) and cellist Sebastien Gingras played Osvaldo Golijov's Mariel. Pretty and insubstantial. The program closed with John Cage's Third Construction, played by Hemphill, Froelich, Mach, and Nissly, on many and varied instruments.

All and all, it was a whole lot of fun, and you bet I'll be back on March 6 or 7 for the next program.


1. The audience, by far the youngest I've seen at an SFS program of any kind (though not lacking for gray heads here and there!), was fantastic: obviously excited by the music, putting out a lot of great energy, and totally attentive and quite.

2. The MCs (Nissly, Schick, and Hemphill) apparently loved have a mike in their hands.

3. The Meyer Constellation system is completely unobtrusive; the sound natural.

5. And here is Giacomo Fiore's. (It's dated February 16, the concert was on the 13th, so much for the 24-hour deadline on SFCV reviews.)


Civic Center said...

Glad to hear SoundBox was a happy surprise for you too. The trick, as you found out too late, is to immediately grab a lovely perching spot on a low ottoman (my favorite) in front of one of the two stages, get to know the group around you, and THEN wander around while leaving something to mark your place.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Now I know!

Anonymous said...

SFCV is understaffed right now. I turned in a Sunday concert review on Monday at 3.30 pm, and it still hasn't gone up.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I know. Catie has left and she was pretty much holding up the world as far as getting things published goes.