The Brass Age
by Philip Campbell
Timothy Higgins, Principal Trombone of the San Francisco Symphony, curated, hosted and starred recently in the latest installment of SoundBox, the stylish nightclub adjunct to Davies Symphony Hall. The program and performance sometimes moved out of synch with the ambience of the venue, but ultimately succeeded as an entertaining insight into the dramatic and lyrical range of the brass instrument through the ages. It also adds tremendous bite and vocalism to modern compositions, evidenced by the many contemporary pieces on the bill.
With self-deprecatory wit and positive energy, the gifted and versatile Higgins repeatedly stressed his mission statement for the night, making a trombone recital into a show and a showcase, rather than a traditional concert. He needn't have worried, as the SoundBox crowd is open to a variety of musical genres and eager to experience whatever comes next. Drinks and snacks from the bar enjoyed in the chic atmosphere of the warehouse-like room create a warm, relaxed mood. Placating the club's demographic is unnecessary. Divided into three "acts" or (more accurately) sets, the evening included long, convivial intermissions. That's the SoundBox formula so far, and it obviously works. The musical aspects of Bell Curve would probably have worked in any setting, but the gorgeous projections and evocative lighting of video designer Adam Larsen and lighting designer Luke Kritzeck set the seal on the evening's success.
Thematically paced as Early Baroque and religious in the first part, dramatic and Romantic in the second, and modern in the third, the program progressed easily, interspersed with some engaging personal video of Higgins as he lives his life with the SFS in beloved San Francisco. Did you know he is an expert mixologist? Judging by his comments on the subject, there should have been some signature drinks available at the bar.
Mon ame a son secret .
Higgins' own Altemusik (2014), a three-movement work for an unlikely trio – alto trombone, marimba, and harpsichord – is in a Baroque style using melodies and harmonies from Bach, Corelli, and Schein, but the catchy and pleasing result is pure modern ear-candy.
Altemusik leavened some of the more somber aspects of the early part of the show, which Higgins stressed would not be pervasive. He couldn't have been truer to his word, and the contemporary pieces that came later proved to be both explosively dramatic and intriguingly experimental. Radiant Spheres (2014) by David Biedenbender, which Higgins commissioned, managed to say an awful lot in just six minutes. From bluesy and introspective to anguished and finally pacified, the beautiful work for trombone and piano alerted us to a real emerging talent.
That is just one of the rewards offered by the SoundBox experience. As a sort of music appreciation and history course wrapped up in an atmosphere of discovery and renewal, the Higgins-curated Bell Curve further demonstrated the possibilities of the concept.
It is also a singular pleasure seeing familiar faces from the DSH main stage in casual attire, getting their licks in a hip nightclub. SoundBox wants to knock down the stereotype of classical musicians as stuffed shirts, and believe me, Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik looked right at home under the colored lights.