The San Francisco Symphony has turned an unremarkable block of a building into one of the most popular spaces for classical music in the city. The practice/storage space, now called the Soundbox, was acoustically altered by the Meyers Sound team and has continuously managed to sell out its intimate and unique shows for over two seasons.
“It is a very technology-rich performance venue in a warehouse-y space with a lot of unfinished surfaces. If you were to look at it in the raw, it is unspectacular in every sense of word. That’s what Soundbox was before we loaded a whole bunch of magic into it,” Associate Director of Artistic Planning, Richard Lonsdorf told Amplify.
The bit of magic comes from the Meyers Constellation system, which, in the Soundbox’s case, is a set up of 28 microphones and 75 loudspeakers that transform the venue’s architectural acoustics. The customized system uses an advanced algorithm that allows the facility to manipulate the venues acoustics to sound like anything from a cathedral to an intimate saloon.
“There are no natural usable acoustics in the Soundbox. It is very dead space,” Lonsdorf explained. “The walls are not treated appropriately. If you clap your hands the sound feels like it goes about a foot. It never really seemed like an option for our quest for a smaller, more intimate venue, which is something that has been on the books for years.”
After throwing a work party in the space, the staff decided the facility could be used during the War Memorial Opera House’s off season as an experimental venue. With younger, more diverse audiences failing to sign up for standard symphonic evenings, the symphony needed a place to explore new ways of enticing people to old music.
“Classical music can feel very complicated, opaque, intimidating, something worthy of years of study before you even set foot in a concert hall. All of these things are barriers to entry,” Lonsdorf said. “We wanted to make sure that Soundbox started to attack all of those at the same time creating an environment where you could essentially walk in and, knowing nothing about what you’re going to see, feel fine with that and leave having received something thought-provoking, beautiful, humorous, compelling and exciting.”
The company dropped all reference to the symphony and rebranded the space as the Soundbox. To make the events more accessible, everything from signage to programs are digital and tickets are $45 compared to the symphony’s, which range from $42 to $162. There is a fully-loaded lighting and video package, and they have lighting and video designers that work on every show to change over the moods of the room and provide audio visual context.
The Soundbox is also trying crafted cocktails and treats like bacon caramel popcorn, which, unlike the symphony, you can bring to your seats.
“It is an experimental venue that we hope will help us learn how to put on shows in the modern era by tweaking all the aspects around the music,” Lonsdorf said. “It’s a place where we could figure out this problem of a demographic shift that’s not in our favor.”
The warehouse also has no standard configuration and every performance is a new take on the design. A furniture rental company is used for every show to bring in whatever pieces are needed. The use of benches, lounge chairs, and pods allows for a more communal gathering than that of the symphony and, as Lonsdorf put it, the space is very “Instagramable.”
Still, Lonsdorf made it clear that the additions to the Soundbox are not meant to distract from the music, but rather something that puts the audience in an open mindset to receive the music.
“I don’t think there is an over pandering to a younger audience. I just think that the setting itself, the shorter sets or more frequent intermissions, the audio/visual components, any of those are a good gateway to the symphony,” said the Symphony’s Principal Percussionist Jake Nissly, who has also co-curated programs at the Soundbox.
“Part of the curation is embracing the technology that it has to offer,” Nissly told Amplify, adding “I think what music has proven throughout history is that is should evolve.”
Like the San Francisco Symphony, the Soundbox continues to play classical music but simply applies more technology to the presentation.
“While we can still represent the highest art of the classical music and that’s still our fundamental job and goal, I don’t think there is anything wrong with branching out and playing more exploratory programming,” Nissly said.
Nissly used the Meyers sound system in the Soundbox to recreate a piece called “Electric Counterpoint” by Steve Reich. For the performance he overdubbed himself playing the other 12 parts going in and out through the audio speaker system.
Nissly explained, “Achieving this piece would not even be conceivable on stage where we normally play.”
“We are really trying to find a modern way to present the music that we love, that we know still has value,” Lonsdorf said. “It’s really exciting to us that this could be the future of classical music.”
To learn more about the Soundbox and its performances, head to SFSoundbox.com.
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