SoundBox: It's a family affair

  • by Philip Campbell
  • Wednesday December 13, 2017
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SoundBox, the San Francisco Symphony's experimental performance venue and live music nightclub, launched a fourth season of fashionably-later "curated" concerts last week with no one less than enduring and endearing Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, hosting and performing in an aptly named evening, "Connections."

Detractors of the SoundBox experience may grumble about increasing difficulty in pouncing on tickets online (which are often sold out in less than 15 minutes) then waiting in long queues to get in. Arriving super-early to assure a good spot indoors also offers no guarantees. Loyalists don't seem to mind. If you have ever lined up for brunch or sought entry to an obscure music club, you doubtless already know it can actually factor into the fun.

The congenial spirit is communicable from the get-go, and once inside the spectacular space, with a brew or cocktail in hand, SoundBox offers an immersive way to enjoy great music. Art installations, marvelous projection screens and shifting stage areas go well with drinks and tapas.

The remarkable Meyer Sound Constellation system has transformed a cavernous rehearsal space into an amazing acoustic environment. The interior design is minimalist and industrial-chic. For "Connections," video designer Adam Larsen and lighting designer Luke Kritzeck further enhanced the exciting atmosphere with their kaleidoscopic visuals.

"We Are Family" by Sister Sledge was playing as exit music after the show ended, but the spirit of the song was threaded throughout the whole night. Instrumentalists of the SFS joined with actual family members and friends for an encouraging and satisfying display of musical legacy and inheritance.

If SoundBox is pitched primarily to culturally adventurous new listeners, "Connections" made a good case for the future of the project. Nothing too long or terribly "difficult" was presented, but the scope and range of the compositions showed how interesting and appealing the classical repertoire can be when it is imaginatively packaged.

Seeing fathers and mothers performing with their sons and daughters, and Big Daddy MTT making his devotion apparent, was not only heart-warming, but also artistically exciting. The warmth of the interactions cheered the audience, too; conversation during the frequent intermissions was lively and enthusiastic.

German conductor Christian Reif, Resident Conductor and Wattis Foundation Music Director of the SFS Youth Orchestra, served with MTT and later played some piano. Fearless Leader also played piano in the first set, and it was good to see him at the keyboard too.

Principal Flute of the SFS Tim Day paired with his son Britton Day in some Faure and Ibert. Young cellist Oliver Herbert joined a devotedly supportive MTT for the complete Debussy Cello Sonata in D minor.

Principal Bassoon Stephen Paulson wowed with some up-close and personal solo Bach, then bounded to the main stage for a wildly kinetic duet with his son Greg Paulson, guitarist for Progressive Death Metal band Arkaik. Starting to get the picture?

Veteran Associate Principal Cello of the SFS Peter Wyrick and wife Amy Hiraga, SFS Violin Member since 2005, sat with their daughter, violinist Mayumi Wyrick; SFS Viola Nancy Ellis; and cellist Oliver Herbert for an excerpt from Schubert's String Quintet in C Major. Making an amusing and affectionate introduction to the Scherzo movement about to be performed, Wyrick impishly said the entire piece runs about an hour, hastily adding they would not be performing the entire score. The audience audibly exhaled with relief. If SoundBox is more about tasting than going through an entire meal, that doesn't lessen the impact.

The longest set, composer Sam Post's "Sketches from Kazakhstan," based on themes by late dombra player Karshyga Akhmedyarov rearranged for chamber orchestra, held the eager crowd's attention without strain. Akhmedyarov's daughter, SFS Violin since 2006 Raushan Akhmedyarova, was soloist in the flashy and tuneful piece. The "connections" were clear in the commissioning of Post's thrilling score, and the performance highlighted how closely allied folk-music traditions are between world nations. Synthesizing the legendary dombra master's themes into his own music, Post has created a breathtaking musical joy ride.

Chunming Mo, SFS Violin Member since 1991, joined Alina Kobialka (daughter of former SFS principal second violinist Daniel Kobialka) and Christian Reif at the piano for an arrangement of the Praeludium from Five Pieces for 2 Violins & Piano by Shostakovich. The violinists also navigated Ligeti's agreeably folksy Ballad and Dance.

"Connections" was certainly a family affair for performers and listeners alike, but another theme song, with MTT in mind, might also have applied. Anyone remember Crispian St. Peters' "Follow me, I'm the Pied Piper?"

San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas hosted and performed in "Connections" at SoundBox. Photo: Brandon Patoc

"Connections" featured composer Sam Post's "Sketches from Kazakhstan." Photo: Courtesy the subject