San Francisco’s Symphony’s Anti-symphonic Soundbox Review - The Trombone Stars

San Francisco Symphony’s Soundbox reverses the formal assumptions of  the classic classical music venue. With its night-club like appurtenances, including  a bar to one side.  Soundbox disrupts the quasi-sacred symphonic regime  by introducing nightclub elements, traditionally associated with jazz and pop, creating an informal, millennial comfort zone. The alternative classical music performance warehouse space  is configured with informal ottoman backless seats and a few banquettes--- just short of tech–space beanbags. The San Francisco’ Symphony’s, anti-symphony space is like disappearing into an Alice in wonderland  “through the looking glass into another world,” a much younger world than Davies Hall, almost regressing into childhood, with the Peter and the Wolf explication of instruments their sounds interspersed with explanatory narration.


Tim plays the trombone

Usually found in  the  back of orchestra as a suppporting instrument The Trombone came to the forefront Friday Saturday, April 14th  and 15th as the star of the Soundbox event. Heretofore, largely  anonymous  musicians, save for the Davies Hall lobby photo gallery,  took center stage,  Displacing the conductor and Superseding presentation in a Program writers notes,  they  explain  themselves, their music and their instruments,  directly to the audience, with a  screen available to illustrate a point. Musical pieces  are primarily chosen to state a thesis or  illustrate a point,. The same selections,  performed in the main hall, without the Soundbox overlay are musical "sound in itself."  Ideally, they are appreciated for their intrinsic qualities, with the individual listener as the intended mediator of their performance. The same piece, or more likely  ones specially chosen for performance in Soundbox are  "sound for..." a purpose beyond themselves, chosen to create a teaching moment to explain the classical music enterprise to a next generation that is not often turning up in Davies Hall of its own accord.


The music ensemble

In contrast to theatre with its duality of performers and audience, symphonic performance and indeed virtually all non-choral performances are mediated by a musical instrument that fundamentally transforms the theatrical dyad into a symphonic or musical triad, while still retaining theatre’s dyadic properties. This seemingly obvious but subtle distinction is the premise of Soundbox, a barebones symphonic musical presentation venue, in a former warehouse, that attempts to strip away the formalities of classical music presentation and restructure it into the more informal mode of the jazz club.


Getting the audience's attention

Breaking down the proscenium wall between performers and audience  is a long a time provocative theatrical device from at least Pirandello’s 1920’s experiments. In the 1960’s,  Molina and Beck’s Living Theatre troupe refined and perfected the classic Pirandellian tactic of “breaking the proscenium, with performers appearing out of or entering into the audience. Soundbox has a similar related mission to more closely connect symphonic performers and listeners, while still recognizing differences between them, especially given that the performers instrument is not primarily a bodily persona, common to both performers and members of the audience, but a musical instrument that transmogrifies human intentionality and vision via  a sound producing artifact into an aesthetically pleasing or at least interesting performance. Indeed, One of Soundbox’s tactics is to feature the mediating musical instrument rather than the musician or the performance piece, elements of the  symphonic triad.


Whereas  the theatre boundary is broken in the traditional venue, in the symphonic regime an alternative  venue is established where the boundary is broken while in the traditional venue, it is left largely intact. In Symphony hall, only a few attributes of a "sacred space” are discarded, like the prohibition against consumption of alcohol and other beverages in certain sections and the gradual informalization of audience dress code. Other differences between  Soundbox and traditional concert venue include interspersing sections of the performers amongst the audience on platforms that allow enhanced visibility but also maintain a clear distinction between performer and audience.


Looking down

Soundbox offers  no program brochure but it is highly programmed, even beyond a conventional  performance, given the ancillary elements inserted to reframe the classical music listening experience. The Soundbox modality also gives voice to performers who discuss their instrument’s special qualities and  their motivation as performers, democratizing the conductor leadership role in communication with the audience. Soundbox also marks its difference from conventional symphonic venues in minimizing  the proscenium, the division between performers and non-performers,  interspersing groups of musicians among the listeners or groups of listeners among the musicians but there are still a higher ratio of active to passive  participants in the enterprise, unless “bellying up” to the Soundbox bar counts.



The anti-symphony Soundbox focuses on a part of the symphony cast, like the trombone, elucidating its special features, provenance and capabilities. The symphony however is greater than the sum of its parts, a dynamic interacting whole demonstrated several weeks later through the San Francisco Symphony’s May 25th performance of Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony. An intriguing sidelight, Soundbox will hopefully feed a new audience into the main hall. Its partial view is unlikely to ever displace a wholistic symphonic regime.


A happy crowd enjoying music


Photos: Courtesy of Alice Zhou unless otherwise noted.


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