SoundBox Opens with an Impressive Bang

It’s a $25 cover. There’s no bottle service, no bouncers and no dress code. There’s no fake line to get in once the doors open, but you should get there early. And there’s no doubt the San Francisco Symphony just launched the City’s most interesting performance space cum nightclub.


Is there booze? Yes. Atmosphere? Oh yeah. Music? Yes. Live, performed the best musicians in town. Quality sound system? Yes, the most sophisticated money can buy. Diverse crowd? Yes. Dancing? Not yet, but who knows– it seems like a place where anything can happen. There was a collective sense that SoundBox was going to be a pretty interesting venture when the Symphony revealed its plans for it earlier this year during their annual season announcement press conference, but I think it’s safe to say what transpired during its opening last Saturday night far exceeded the press and public’s expectations. On every level it was a total success.

What was once a barren, aesthetically boring and acoustically dead rehearsal space in a corner of Davies Symphony Hall is now a live venue that feels ready for endless possibilities. The opening night audience entered the building via what’s typically the musician’s entrance, coming immediately upon an orchestra pit transformed into a strange garden, and in it a performance of John Cage’s Branches already underwaywith musicians using plants as instrumentsamplified throughout the space, filmed from overhead, and projected onto a very large screen. At 9pm the sound system showed itself off by audibly identifying each of the exits, and then members of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus streamed through the room toward one of the two stages singing a Gregorian chant arranged by Mason Bates to the surprised and delighted crowd. From there it just got better as heady mixture of works ranging from Meredith Monk to Monteverdi took place across the large room over the next two hours.

The Symphony’s Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas curated and conducted the evening, titled Extremities, and he set the bar extremely high for those who are going to follow over the next few months. To my surprise, which I took as a signal of serious intentions, he brought along the orchestra’s top-tier players to perform Ravel’s delicate and alluring Introduction and Allegro, who then quickly regrouped on the other stage for Varèse’s brutal Integrales. It was exactly the kind of programming that would never happen in the main performance hall, but here the contrast, enhanced by accompanying projections, created a sense of experimentation and discovery, as if MTT and the musicians were doing this because simply because they can, because it was unexpected, and the results created a sense of liberation.

SoundBox. Photo by Stefan Cohen.

The night also felt like the start of something significant and impactful. I went with four people, only one of whom might identify as a regular symphony-goer, and they all came away hugely impressed, vowing to return. I overheard a lot of similar statements, and the regulars I spotted were in agreement the Symphony had pulled off something extraordinary. For me the biggest surprise was the tremendous hole the show exposed in San Francisco’s musical performance landscape. While it’s true that on almost any given night in the Bay Area there are multiple organizations covering much of this same musical ground, they tend to (wisely) limit their programming within their own specialized musical niches, be it chamber, baroque, contemporary, etc.. Rarely are these genres combined with the sense of musical adventure displayed here; only the annual Ojai North and Cabrillo Festivals present this kind of program performed at this level of quality musicianship, but those are once a year events taking place in less inviting environments. I don’t want to sound negative about other venues and organizations, but the ante just got precipitously raised.

I had no idea how much San Francisco needed something like SoundBox. Some people will talk about the bar, the Meyer Sound Constellation System which makes it all sound perfect, the casualness of the setting coupled with the respectful behavior of the audience, the state of the art projections and all the other nifty stuff that got packed into Saturday night’s performance, but for me the main thing is this: the City now has an excellent space to hear superbly played music that for a variety of reasons is ill-suited to the large, formal confines of the concert hall. It’s as if Bay Area music lovers were just handed a promising gift of unlimited potential and I hope the San Francisco Symphony will eventually share SoundBox with other organizations. There’s so much that can happen in there, and that was perhaps the most exciting thing unveiled during last Saturday night’s marvelous show.

Up next is Curiosities, described as “a musical menagerie of the most curious kind. Enter a raucous Parisian dance hall turned on its head, bursting with color, laughter, and mischief. Be swept away by the kind of intimate romance that’s better expressed with music than words. Plunge into a legendary world of temptation too good to resist—and hear what happens when you open Pandora’s Box.” It takes place January 9 & 10 at 9:00 pm. Tickets are on sale now and these shows will sell out. I suggest you get in line early before the doors open at 8:00 if you want to have a place to sit, though roaming around didn’t seem like a bad option. After all, everywhere one turned there was something, and often someone, interesting to see and hear.

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