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S.F. Symphony Entices New Audiences With SoundBox Venue

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Pianist Sarah Cahill performs solo piano works by Terry Riley at SoundBox, with video art by Adam Larsen. (Stefan Cohen/S.F. Symphony)

You walk into SoundBox, the San Francisco Symphony’s 4-month-old experimental music venue, through a back door of Louise M. Davies Hall, and go down.

So it’s got that underground club vibe.

In fact, it feels less like a music club than a happening from the '60s, with videos on big screens and sound sculptures. At the most recent concert, the wailing drone of Oliver DiCicco’s "Sirens" lured us in.

The space is a rehearsal hall, still used by the symphony and the San Francisco Opera. It’s a huge warehouse of a room, with 50-foot ceilings, two stages and a bar at the back.

It’s definitely not your grandmother’s concert hall. People sip their drinks, and perch on cushions or lie on the scarred floor, tweeting, shooting selfies and chatting away until the music starts. And then the crowd of 500 gets as quiet as any audience at a more formal concert.


Symphony orchestras are among the most traditional of the performing arts. But around the country a few are trying to reinvent themselves, worried that audiences are graying and fading away.

The entrance to SoundBox .
The entrance to SoundBox . (Stefan Cohen/S.F. Symphony)

The Los Angeles Philharmonic has its Green Umbrella. The Chicago Symphony is doing Music Now. SoundBox is the San Francisco Symphony’s effort, and its first season is finishing April 9-10 and looking like a hit.

“It was really quite a piece of magic, I thought," said Joshua Kosman, classical music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. He’s one of many who have praised SoundBox’s repertoire and sound.

“The electronics could make it sound just like it was supposed to sound,” said Kosman. “All in this old barn.”

The electronics are one of SoundBox’s secret weapons, transforming what was once a notoriously dead space into whatever acoustical environment the musicians want.

The room is equipped with a Meyer Sound Constellation Acoustic System, a network of 25 microphones and 85 speakers tucked away above our heads, run by an expensive sound-mixing processor remotely controlled by an iPad.

“SoundBox encourages people to come for the experience of the space itself," said Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor and music director, in a recent interview.

“They know it's about a lot of music that perhaps they haven't heard, but it's that sense of adventure that's very much a part of it."

Edwin Outwater conducts Nicole Lizée’s Kool-Aid Acid Test #17 at Soundbox.
Edwin Outwater conducts Nicole Lizée’s "Kool-Aid Acid Test #17" at SoundBox. (Stefan Cohen/S.F. Symphony)

SoundBox was Tilson Thomas’ idea, a successor to a similar experiment he started at the New World Symphony, his other artistic directing gig in Miami.

“SoundBox was an opportunity to take a space no one wanted to be, in a very dead rehearsal hall,” Tilson Thomas said, “and make it into a place everyone wanted to be.”

The videos, shorter programs and long intermissions, the drinking, the casual seating, no tails or black gowns for the musicians -- they’re all designed to attract elusive younger audiences more familiar with rock clubs and DJs.

“People really feel the public has a barrier to entry,” said San Francisco Symphony President Sakurako Fisher.

“They don't know when to clap, how they should dress, how you buy a drink here,” Fisher said. “These are things that, actually, can change your mind between buying a ticket to this or buying something to Bill Graham Music Hall. You know how to do that.”

The League of American Orchestras did a national study with the National Endowment for the Arts in 2009, and found that symphony attendance has declined, no matter how you measure it, from the early 1980s to 2008. One key statistic: Attendance fell off within every generation as it aged, defying the conventional idea that people eventually discover classical music as they go gray.

The San Francisco Symphony has a more diverse audience than some orchestras, but the average age of attendees in the main concert hall is 64, and the largest percentage is 65 to 74. (Symphony staff noted with excitement that more than half of new subscribers in the 2014/2015 season were between the ages of 35 and 64.)

So here’s a recipe for a younger audience, according to league president Jesse Rosen:

“A greater emphasis on intimacy, being in smaller spaces, increased priority on being able to socialize, and have an environment conducive to visiting and talking and drinking.”

Which sounds a lot like SoundBox.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts members of the SF Symphony and Chorus.
Michael Tilson Thomas conducts members of the S.F. Symphony and Chorus. (Stefan Cohen/S.F. Symphony)

Every one of the SoundBox shows has sold out this year, with social media, not advertising, driving ticket sales.

In fact, the symphony treats SoundBox a little like what music critic Kosman calls “a crazy cousin that they don’t want to be associated with.”

Kosman asked the marketing department at the symphony why you can’t even find a link to SoundBox on the symphony’s own website: “It’s sort of an anti-marketing strategy for regulars. ‘What we’re trying to do is keep those people at bay so we can make room for these other folks who might not otherwise come.’ ”

The symphony doesn’t have any hard data yet, but there are a lot of 20- and 30-somethings in this SoundBox crowd, like Mary Goree, who was at the March concert. She said she usually goes to rock or hip-hop shows, but SoundBox “blew her mind.”

“From the first moment walking in, the visuals, the art installation incorporated with the music, and the whole experience, the different stages, all of the pieces and the video that correlated with the pieces. It's been an incredible experience.”

Words that are music to the ears of Michael Tilson Thomas.

“I can't tell you what it meant for me to have some people, young people, coming up at the end of the 'Monteverdi Magnificat’ (from the SoundBox January concert) and saying, you know, ‘I never heard Monteverdi, and this has now become my most favorite piece.’

“Extraordinary to think of something 400 years old could have that powerful effect on someone who's a 21st century person.”

SoundBox reverts to its more mundane role as a rehearsal hall after the April concerts, but Tilson Thomas promises it will be back next year.


"The big advance," Tilson Thomas said, "for me would be that I'll have an opportunity to present to you some of the video pieces I've been making over the last years. I script videos which have to do with what the music is really about. It's the ultimate challenge because music is about a lot of things, it doesn't necessarily have a story. But how to create imagery in an environment which allows the audience to enter into that aboutness, which may be quite apart from their usual reality."

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