SF Symphony’s SoundBox Experiments With the Classics

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By Jenny Xie
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SoundBox is an experience that escapes categorization. An offshoot of the San Francisco Symphony, SoundBox reimagines orchestral music for the millennial set, producing a show that experiments with movement, video, food, drink, and installation art.

Launched in December 2014 and having wrapped up its second season, SoundBox presented Playing in the SoundBox: The Performance Space as Laboratory as part of San Francisco Design Week. Associate Director of Artistic Planning Richard Lonsdorf and blogger Mark Rudio of A Beast in a Jungle spoke about designing the experience, breaking through conventions, and tackling goals for the future.

Located in Hayes Valley, SoundBox occupies a 7,600-square-foot rehearsal space previously used by the San Francisco Opera, the San Francisco Ballet, and the San Francisco Youth Orchestra.

Located in Hayes Valley, SoundBox occupies a 7,600-square-foot rehearsal space previously used by the San Francisco Opera, the San Francisco Ballet, and the San Francisco Youth Orchestra.

There was a time, Rudio noted, that composers and instrumentalists graced the cover of Time Magazine. "I don’t think it’s about the music," he said of the genre’s declining popularity. "I think it’s the presentation of the music." To draw younger, more diversified crowds back to the fine arts, San Francisco Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas and the organizers of SoundBox radically changed what it meant to attend a performance. The venue, a rehearsal space behind Davies Symphony Hall, has been transformed to emit a nightclub vibe. Instead of two acts, each program consists of three 20-minute acts to encourage show-goers to mingle, grab a bite, or refresh their drinks at the full bar.

The bar offers craft cocktails and gourmet snacks for guests to enjoy during intermission. Banquettes, ottomans, bar stools, cafe tables, and high top cocktail tables from Blueprint Studios provide a mix of seated and standing room for about 500 guests.

The bar offers craft cocktails and gourmet snacks for guests to enjoy during intermission. Banquettes, ottomans, bar stools, cafe tables, and high top cocktail tables from Blueprint Studios provide a mix of seated and standing room for about 500 guests.

Previously infamous for its dead acoustics, the concrete-and-steel cavern is now an immersive soundscape thanks to the Meyer Sound Constellation System. Twenty-eight suspended microphones span out over four zones, allowing for music ensembles to move throughout the space or play on different stages simultaneously. Thematic videos by SoundBox designer Adam Larsen add dynamism to an eclectic and ever-surprising program.

Tilson Thomas curated the March 25-26 shows entitled Outré, which celebrated the French avant-garde. Jarrod Baumann of Zeterre Landscape Architecture designed a French-inspired garden installation that featured a digital reflecting pool by Larsen.

Tilson Thomas curated the March 25-26 shows entitled Outré, which celebrated the French avant-garde. Jarrod Baumann of Zeterre Landscape Architecture designed a French-inspired garden installation that featured a digital reflecting pool by Larsen.

"We had to fire on all cylinders to do something new," said Lonsdorf. "It was a permissive experiment. The ability to fail was crucial here."

Pre-concert, SoundBox employees prepare a plant installation that corresponds to composer John Cage’s Branches, whose score is comprised of performance instructions for playing amplified pods, cacti, pod rattles, and other plant materials like instruments.

Pre-concert, SoundBox employees prepare a plant installation that corresponds to composer John Cage’s Branches, whose score is comprised of performance instructions for playing amplified pods, cacti, pod rattles, and other plant materials like instruments.

Failure, however, has not been on the horizon. Word of mouth about the show ensures that tickets, at an attainable $35 a pop, sell out within two hours. Said Rudio about what differentiates the show, "They created something adventurous, and it wasn’t the same thing every time. SoundBox felt new and captured the zeitgeist. I don’t think anybody was ready for that first night."

Members of the San Francisco Symphony percussion section Tom Hemphill, James Lee Wyatt III, Victor Avdienko, Jacob Nissly, and Raymond Froehlich present Music for Pieces of Wood by Steve Reich.

Members of the San Francisco Symphony percussion section Tom Hemphill, James Lee Wyatt III, Victor Avdienko, Jacob Nissly, and Raymond Froehlich present Music for Pieces of Wood by Steve Reich.

SoundBox returns this December. Learn more about the show on the website.