29 November 2014

SF SoundBox

Lisa Hirsch left a comment on my December preview mentioning SF SoundBox, whose opening I had omitted. I started to reply to her comment and realized I needed more space, so here are my thoughts:

SF SoundBox. . . . I went back and forth on including that. My criteria for the things I list is: (1) something I'm going to or (2) something I'd like to go to, given world enough and time. In other words, this list is what they now call "curated." I have a number of swirling thoughts on Sound Box, some of which I will unload here, since you bring it up.

For those who don't know, SF SoundBox is a new initiative by the SF Symphony to create a small informal space for performances. It's in a former (maybe still current?) rehearsal room in Davies Hall. It will rely heavily on a Meyer Sound System. Programs start late in the evening and there will be drinks and snacks (excuse me, "small plates"). I think they also plan to incorporate audio-visuals into the shows. Basically, it's a night club.

I wish them well with it, but it's really not my thing, and not just because the late start times make it a non-starter for someone like me who thinks 8:00 PM is too late to start a show (ironically, I will be in SF that night, but it's much easier to get to Davies from my home in San Leandro than from where I'll be in SF).

I'm put off by the reliance on an electronic sound system. I know it's standard for certain styles of music, and it's creeping more and more into "classical" performances, but I think hearing music in the moment and without enhancement is worth the trouble and enhanced music maybe not so much (as with everything I'm saying, I realize that opinions and tastes will differ on this).

I'm really put off by the self-consciously cool vibe. I assume they're trying for an SF equivalent of NY's Poisson Rouge, which I'm sure is a fun place for many but I always imagine people sitting there self-consciously eating nachos (or other foods that crunch) and deliberately talking during the music to show they "get it." If you really want to listen to music, as opposed to basking in your own coolness, you are OK with sitting there silently. You are also OK with not imposing yourself on those around you. That's something that has evolved in concert halls. Night clubs are different. And that's great, but that's why I don't go to night clubs (or whatever the kids call them these days).

I wonder what kind of research they did on the potential of a place like this, or whether they're just dreaming of a cool involved late-night audience that would of course eat this up with a spoon. As ad agencies and politicians know, you can get awfully far by appealing to how people want to see themselves, as opposed to how they actually have to live, but how many people are going to show up often enough for late-night innovative concerts for this to be worth the expenditure?

Also: though I find it admirable of the SF Symphony to experiment with new types of concerts and concert presentations, I have to say I'm puzzled that most of these ventures, however interesting and worthwhile and fun on their own, do not involve major musical works for orchestra, which is the basic purpose of a symphony orchestra. It seems like an admission of defeat, in a way, as if they feel large orchestras just really aren't what people want these days. But what else are they for? There are already lots of groups that perform chamber music or have interactive concerts etc. (Contrast this with the Berkeley Symphony, which has a major commitment to big new works for orchestra, as opposed to the little tidbits the SF Symphony drops into its schedule).

So: I wish them well, I hope it's a big success, I'm sure I'm missing out, but: this is not for me.


Lisa Hirsch said...

I think there are a couple of reasons you don't mention:

- Presenting music not usually heard at Davies (very old, very new, chamber, etc.)

- Giving MTT and guests conductors a chance to do some stuff they usually don't. I think Heras-Casado is leading at least one of these programs

- A theory that getting people into Davies is half the battle. Next step: into the main theater for....Beethoven!

- donations from a SoundBox attendee are just as green as donations from an SFS attendee

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Sure. Nothing I said precludes or discounts those reasons. And none of those reasons counteracts anything I said. I am extremely dubious that most of the audience for something like SoundBox is going to turn into regular attendees at traditional symphony programs. If you attend something because it's "non-traditional" -- because you can wander and chat and chew, enjoying music and visuals in the background -- are you really going to want to sit quietly (with no snacks but the occasional lozenge!) in dreary Davies Hall, listening to lengthy pieces of the core Austro-German repertoire? And yes, donations are just as green, but . . . that assumes there will actually be donations prompted by SoundBox, and major continuing ticket sales once the novelty wears off. I mean, I sincerely hope there are, but will they outweigh the costs of SoundBox? We're already told constantly that ticket prices don't begin to cover the cost of operations.

There's a reason lots of that music isn't usually heard at Davies: Davies is a big, crappy barn. Personally, I think they should concentrate their fund-raising on blowing it up and building something better, or at least in building themselves a small concert hall (similar to what I'm hearing the opera is doing).

Again: there are reasons, many of them intriguing and exciting, for doing something like SoundBox. I hope it's a big success. I have been known to be wrong about things once or twice before. But the set-up is not for me, as I described.

Lisa Hirsch said...

My comments were along the lines of "what they're thinking at SFS," and I agree with everything you say.

Brent Assink or someone else from SFS said a while back that they maxed out the space at Davies the day they moved in, and have needed more space ever since. I agree that blowing up Davies and building something new would be an excellent use of their time, but for all sorts of reasons, it's hard to imagine this happening unless somebody shows up who is willing to donate at least $250 million to the project.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Well, yes (about the realistic prospect of getting a better performance space for them).

I do think there are lots of good reasons for doing what they're doing -- it's not how I would do it, but then I'm not the one doing it. But those reasons often don't matter much from my point of view (that is, the point of view of an audience member, not someone connected with the organization or with a career in music). It strikes me that the prospects here are somewhat dubious, which is just going to harden organizational opposition to innovation. I think they'd be better off, and healthier in the long run, if they made the regular audience listen to more contemporary orchestral music. That's their great strength, and that's where they should be building for the future, rather than in creating something that is already available elsewhere.

Again, I will be delighted if I am wrong. I hope it's a big success. It's certainly possible someone would read the reasons that I say it's not for me, and decide those are exactly the reasons it is for him or her. But, again: not for me.

John Marcher said...

Not surprisingly, I have some thoughts about this. First, regarding the electronic element of how the music is presented at SoundBox, that won't be known until it opens, and I suspect it will vary with each presentation. The Meyer Constellation system they've installed doesn't amplify sound as much as it reconfigures how sound is heard within an environment. And the space in which they're creating SoundBox certainly needed something to make it acoustically acceptable. I attended a demo of Constellation a few months ago and was amazed by what I heard, though there wasn't a microphone in sight. It essentially turned an acoustically dead room into a vibrant space.

I'm okay with that, and everything else in this experiment because where is it written that things must stay the same or that one thing negates another? The current symphony orchestra experience is only what? 200 years old at best, and as you noted it has evolved into what it is today, so can it not continue to evolve from here? I also don't think SoundBox changes or alters what SFS does any more than their Day of the Dead concerts, chamber music series or film programs. If they can expand in new areas why not do so? I don't see how this changes or implies anything negative regarding the programming in the main hall.

As for the audience, I don't think MTT is going to tolerate people scarfing down nachos while he's onstage. More to the point, though I too, have never been to Poisson Rouge I imagine it quite differently- a place where contemporary works can be performed without pretense or the obstacles of financial expectations/obligations resulting from performing in larger halls and venues-- a place where artistic risks can find an audience. Sure, there are plenty of spaces like that in the Bay Area, but how inviting are they?

We both know we differ on the whole starting time issue, and yes, I can walk home from Davies, but I don't think that makes my appreciation any different just because I'd like to relax after work, enjoy a meal and get to the performance without having to feel rushed and have the remains of the workday still rolling around my mind. You want 7pm, I want 9pm. That doesn't mean we're a "different" audience, and I'm not sure the SoundBox audience is going to a different or new audience as much as it's going to be a segment of the existing one.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

1 of 2 parts

JM, I kind of feel you're responding to what you think I wrote, rather than to what I actually wrote, which was far more individual and circumscribed than your reaction would lead one to believe.

As far as the Meyer Sound System goes: sure, it remains to be seen how it works in this case. I have heard people who were dazzled by it, and people who were not. I would prefer that the Symphony find a suitable room, but obviously there are problems (financial and logistical and geographical) with that. So I'll just say: the use of the Meyer Sound System is not really a selling point for me.

You're positioning yourself as the champion of experimentation and innovation, but nothing I said was opposed to that. In fact, I said repeatedly that I admired the Symphony for trying new things, was glad they were thinking along these lines, etc. However: I don't see this as an evolution, but as a redirection. Like most of the other new ventures you mention (the Day of the Dead/Lunar New Year concerts, the Xmas concerts, the films, the chamber program) these things have a sometimes tenuous connection to what symphony orchestras are designed for. That's not to say they're not worthy, not worth doing, and so forth: it's to say that the Symphony seems to feel that their future does not lie with big orchestral pieces, but in chamber/pops/audio-visual concerts. But a lot of groups are already doing those things; there aren't many other places where you can sit and listen to a big orchestra. What it implies about their main programming is that, wonderful as the orchestral repertoire is, they feel it's not the future. As I said, compare this with Berkeley Symphony's commitment to new large pieces for orchestra. (Berkeley Symphony also has a chamber series, in a suitable venue, so these things aren't mutually exclusive.)

Also: I feel that SoundBox is experimental only in the context of what the Symphony does. This sort of thing goes back to aristocrats playing cards and flirting while the quartet saws away in the background. Lots of people like that. I'm not one of them; I'd rather listen to music on its own. (Perhaps that's not a fair description of how this is going to work out, but it's the impression I'm getting from what I'm hearing and reading. Again: delighted to be proven wrong etc.)

As for a place for contemporary works that is welcoming and not pretentious: well, I've heard concerts like that at Hertz Hall in Berkeley (Cal Performances), SF Jazz, Kanbar Hall at the Jewish Community Center, the Center for New Music, the Yerba Buena Center, Herbst Theater, Old First Concerts, and probably other places I'm forgetting. . . . I never felt that those places were not welcoming. I don't think the blankness of Davies Hall is particularly inviting, or more enticing than the places I mention. Some of the places I mentioned are in neighborhoods that are kind of sketchy, but so is Davies, as far as many people are concerned.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

2 of 2 parts:

If MTT is expecting rapt silence while he does his thing, he might want to have a talk with the Symphony's PR group, because I am not getting that impression from the publicity. I am getting the impression that you're supposed to eat and drink and mingle while it's all going on.

The start time: I kind of feel I'm going in circles on that at this point, so I'll just say, yes, it's great that you can go home, relax, get ready at leisure -- and you can do that because you live close enough to Davies Hall. I'm not sure how many people you know who live that close to the venue, and are interested in attending concerts of this sort, and are OK with walking through Civic Center at night. The move on the part of other arts groups has been towards earlier start times. It's great that the Symphony is offering an alternative for those like you who prefer later times, but they do seem to be going against the tide there, and I wonder if research is telling them that later times will give them a sustainable audience. As for whether it's the same audience, the e-mail they sent "patrons" explicitly says they're trying to reach young people. Those people are already at casual venues with cool music and drinks and snacks. Those places are called bars. So clearly it's a viable model, only -- to me-- it doesn't really play to the Symphony's strength.

As I said repeatedly, but apparently need to say again: I am glad they're trying this, I wish them well with it, I will be delighted if it's a huge success. It remains to be seen. But I'll have to hear about it from someone else: this is not for me.

Lisa Hirsch said...

The main-stage Davies season - not counting the pops stuff done at some programs has around 250 works for symphony orchestra on it. That's against a much, much smaller number of works on the Day of the Dead, etc. programs you mention. I see no reduction in commitment to works by symphony orchestra. (How do I know that number? I counted the list Jeff Dunn made earlier this year; it's posted on my blog in my discussion of the SFS season.)

I'm not sure whether Le Poisson Route is even the model for this series. Before it started having classical programming, there was the Kaufman Penthouse, a space west of Juilliard and Lincoln Center that the Mostly Mozart Festival has been using for intimate chamber music programs for years. They're usually fabulously programmed; I saw a 10 p.m. program by ICE of chamber works of Magnus Lindberg there in 2006. Small tables, drinks, snacks - and everybody was totally focussed on the music and performers, not the food.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I didn't say there was a reduction in the number of works for symphony orchestra: I said all their exploration and innovation seems to be mostly in other directions. That's fine, but it does lend a certain museum air to their "main stage" programming. (You yourself have complained about the lack of major new orchestral works in their programming, with the exception of occasional pieces mostly by John Adams and Mason Bates.) The main concert season is full, but it's fairly static. Ultimately, that's a dead end.

The comparison to Le Poisson Rouge is my speculation -- to me, what they're aiming for sounds like what I've heard of that venue. I'm delighted to hear that the food and drink at the Kaufman Penthouse didn't trump the music -- though it makes me wonder why they had food and drink. Philharmonia Baroque has been doing something similar with their Sessions concerts. I hear they're popular and people enjoy them. I can guarantee I wouldn't be one of those people. I don't fault them for doing them, though.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I did not say that you said they were reducing the number. I'm saying that the sheer number of orchestral works militates against the idea of a reduced commitment.

The issue of commitment to new or recent orchestral works is a little different, and it's important to remember that a lot of my ranting is because MTT is constantly presented by SFS and the media as some kind of innovator in orchestral programming. He no longer deserves that moniker, though he certainly could earn it back. The Centennial season was grand, after all.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

OK. I will, to some extent, disagree with what you're saying, though it's certainly a legitimate point. To me, if all the innovation is going in other directions, and they're not renewing the orchestral repertory, then, in the long run, the main orchestral repertory is a dead weight.

Again: I am not slamming the Symphony for doing this. I am not convinced it will fail, and I will not rejoice if it does. I hope it's a huge success. But for the reasons I mentioned, this sounds as if it's not for me, and I wish they were putting their inventiveness and urge to innovate in other directions. This all started only as an explanation of why I didn't list it as something to go to in December -- but as I said that list of mine is based on my personal preferences and recommendations.

Civic Center said...

I will be sure to have an extra helping of nachos just for you during the Monteverdi.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Perhaps if you crunch along to a fanfare it will just add to the sense of merriment.