Mark Rudio

In Descent

Mark Rudio
In Descent

Meow Meow opens the second season of SoundBox.

SoundBox, the San Francisco Symphony’s alternative performance space, returned to its vast dark corner of Davies Symphony Hall last weekend to kick off its second season with an entertaining program that not only pleased the crowd, but revealed a few hints about how seriously dedicated the organization is to making the experiment in new audience development more than just an interesting sideshow to what takes place inside the main concert hall.

After last year’s smash debut with a single evening performance hosted and curated by Michael Tilson Thomas, of the four programs that followed three were equally if not more musically interesting, but they lacked a host possessing MTT’s extraordinary ability to work a room (of the five, I thought the third — Farther Out — worked best). Not that the lack of a starry host for subsequent editions preventedSoundBox from becoming the hottest events on the Bay Area music scene, selling out every show to enthusiastic audiences and garnering heaps of national media attention, and I’m not suggesting the format needs someone of MTT’s stature to succeed (it truly doesn’t). But it never hurts to put a magnet in the center of things around which everything else can orbit, and at times last season it seemed the Symphony wasn’t quite fully prepared for the monster they’d unleashed. Judging from last weekend’s opening program (and the advance schedule for what’s ahead), it looks like the Symphony’s put in a lot of time during the off-season thinking about how to make SoundBox 2.0 as successful as its inaugural run, if not more so.

Enlisting the talents of Meow Meow and handing over the curatorial reins to her and Edwin Outwater (who also curated Farther Out) for an opening program called In Descent was a stroke of genius, a combination perfectly suited to the purpose of the space; pulling the musical legacy of the past into the present, in terms of both performing the music and presenting it to an audience that may not (yet) have an affinity for the concert hall experience. [On a side note, I hope after this weekend Richard Lonsdorf is busy creating a future Symphony program featuring Meow Meow performing Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins with MTT and the orchestra — maybe even at next year’s Opening Night Gala].

Centered around Weimar-era works, In Descent was a contemporary take on 1920’s Berlin cabaret, withMeow and Outwater wisely not trying to recreate the past but opting instead to give the audience an idea of what that era might look like today, allowing them to stretch out from Weimar nearly a hundred years in each direction, beginning with Schubert and ending with György Ligeti and Laurie Anderson, with the music of Brecht, Weill, Schulhoff and Hindemith squarely in the center. The result was a narrative arc beginning with the playful innuendo of  Schubert’s “Die Forelle” and the lightness of his “Trout” quintet before descending into the darkness of Weill and Brecht’s “Ballad of the Drowned Girl” and the despairing desire of “Surabaya Johnny.” From there they emerged on the other side with soprano Nikki Einfeld taking on the postmodern, apocalyptic-sounding vocals of Ligeti’s “Mysteries of the Macabre” (from his opera Le Grand Macabre) and ending with Meow Meow’s mournful, tender version of Anderson’s “The Dream Before (Progress).”

In the middle of the show Outwater led members of the orchestra in a scintillating version of Hindemith’s Kammermusik No. 1, with flutist Tim Day, percussionist Jacob Nissly, and bassoonist Steven Dibner providing stand-out moments. After the second intermission Meow Meow, with assistance from Outwater and a lucky man plucked from the audience, delivered a comedic deconstruction of Schulhoff’s Sonata Erotica. Essentially a notated vocal score of a very lengthy orgasm, Meow Meow performed it with an equally lengthy faux copy of the score in hand, making her way noisily from the stage to the center of the room with lucky man in tow supporting her cantilevered décolletage and microphone. I can’t imagine it being done with greater effect. Okay, maybe that’s not entirely true — certainly I would have done a better job at holding the mic.

It was a tough act to follow, but with the Ligeti piece Einfeld proved up to the task for the night’s trickiest and most demanding assignment. “Mysteries of the Macabre” is not only an almost impossibly difficult vocal performance featuring shrieks and stratospheric swoops in range, but there’s a heavily theatrical component built into it since it’s sung by character in Ligeti’s opera who is a member of a strange Secret Political Police. Einfeld, wearing high boots, a severely-cut jacket over a short skirt, her long, flaming-red hair pulled into a tight ponytail, and sporting librarian glasses and plastic ID badge, prowled and twitched across the stage, gradually shedding pieces of clothing as the piece progressed through its ten or so minutes of bizarre yet captivating histrionics. When she finally pulled her hair out of the ponytail and shook it out like a woman possessed during the denouement, it seemed like some members of the audience didn’t know what to make of what they were witnessing, though once they realized it was over they responded with hearty cheers that felt like a mixture of relief and rejoicing.

Throughout the night the accompanying videos on the room’s three screens included amusing footage of a trout in a stream moving forward then in reverse, Meow Meow slowly submerging underwater during “Drowned Girl,” the image of a grandly destroyed theater (which looked European but was actually an American venue), and especially effective, the juxtaposition of Meow’s performance against Brigitte Helm’s dance sequence from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis on the room’s large screen, a reminder of how today’s sense of what seems risqué in public is more prudish and circumspect, at least on the surface.

The remaining SoundBox shows this season, which in chronological order will be curated by members of the San Francisco Symphony (January 15 & 16), Ragnar Bohlin and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus (February 19 & 20), Michael Tilson Thomas (March 25 & 26), and James Darrah, Christopher Rountree, and Adam Larsen (April 22 & 23) may or may not have the sex appeal of In Descent, but the gauntlet’s been thrown, and it should be exciting to see what happens next.

Up next is Hidden Worlds, which sold out both shows almost immediately. Keep checking theSoundBox website for returned tickets to become available, especially in the week leading up to the performances.

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BrechtCabaretEdwin OutwaterHindemith: Kammermusik No. 1Ligeti: Mysteries of the Macabre,Meow MeowNikki EinfeldSan Francisco SymphonySchulhoff: Sonata EroticaSoundBoxWeill,Weimar