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Latest SoundBox Lets Audience Fill in the Blanks

January 24, 2017

San Francisco Symphony

Judging from the people lining up in the rain on Franklin St. 45 minutes before doors opened — and nearly two hours before the music would begin — SoundBox, the popup series by the San Francisco Symphony, is on the right track. January 20’s “Macro/Micro” program, curated by composer Mason Bates and conductor Edwin Outwater, nominally had a theme of place and perspective. Really, it was a potpourri of (mostly) pleasing bits and pieces.

In the first set of the evening, inspired by the horizon, older works were revitalized. A monochromatic medieval-style woodcut (video design by Adam Larsen) projected around the repurposed Zellerbach Rehearsal Hall gradually filled with color as the first movement of Haydn’s Le Matin Symphony took shape. Under Outwater’s baton, the reduced orchestra of SFS musicians, and especially Robin Sutherland on harpsichord, played this music with wonderful dynamic nuance.

Outwater’s appreciation for details remained on display in Vaughan Williams’s “Bredon Hill,” sung on Friday by tenor William Ferguson. Each of the orchestra’s chords were delicately tapered, making the composer’s music sound far less silly than it usually does — but, delightfully, it wasn’t without a touch of schmaltz, which reminded me of the charismatic performance of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s The Adventures of Robin Hood Suite Outwater led at Stern Grove several summers ago.

Engaging contemporary works featured in the South American–themed second act. A quartet of violinists Kelly Leon-Pearce and David Chernyavsky, violist Matthew Young, and assistant principal cellist Amos Yang gave a dynamic performance of two movements from Gabriela Lena Frank’s 2010 work Milagros (Miracles). The first selection, a rhythmic but melodically off-kilter dance, was energetic and concise; the second, with melancholic chromatic lines, featured a sweepingly lyrical solo by violist Young.

In Osvaldo Golijov’s “Lúa Descolorida,” soprano Marnie Breckenridge literally shone. Performing with rich expressivity this ode to the moon, she became the subject, standing on a central platform and dressed in dazzling white. A gorgeous violin solo by assistant concertmaster Jeremy Constant made this florid song a highlight of the evening.

On laptop, Bates joined the orchestra for his 2013 work The Rise of Exotic Computing, which draws inspiration from self-replicating computer codes. Accompanied on Friday by imagery of microbes and circuit boards, this techno-infused piece has a smooth, digital pulse against which members of the orchestra trade motifs. String glissandi paired with gently oscillating wind figures are among the novel textures Bates uses, and though the music sometimes feels flat — especially in comparison to works like Jukka Tiensuu’s Soma or Samuel Adams’s Radial Play, both recently performed by SFS — it’s nevertheless enjoyable.

Other works were less satisfying. Selections from Frank’s 2001 quartet Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout were musically shallow compared to the ones earlier in the program. First violinist Chernyavsky flawlessly executed the brilliant passages, but the two movements, especially the bold love song “Coqueteos,” would do better as encores than they did in the middle of the evening. It didn’t help that the Meyer Sound system here gave the quartet a strangely digital, compressed quality. The rhythms in Christopher Rouse’s Ku-Ka-Ilimoku aren’t particularly interesting — an unfortunate characteristic in a percussion quartet — and in passages, neither were they crisp. Then again, all three of these movements were so brief that they hardly registered on the program as a whole.

But everything on Macro/Micro was brief — too brief, in the case of the last act’s solo Bach performances. Associate Concertmaster Nadya Tichman played, with good command and presence, the Gavotte en Rondeau from the E-Major Partita; and keyboardist Sutherland’s expansive performance of the Prelude and Fugue No. 1 in C Major from Book Two of The Well-Tempered Clavier complemented the astral imagery (both pieces were on the 1977 Voyager Golden Records launched by NASA into space; this portion of the program represented the final frontier). There wasn’t enough time to enjoy all these individual artists had to offer.

In fact, the surfeit of excerpts made this program superficial: nothing was allowed to truly make an impact. I’d prefer greater depth than breadth (also a higher music-to-intermission ratio), but if SoundBox’s objective is to attract new patrons, it succeeded: The audience seemed enthralled. And especially on this inauguration evening, who’s to deny the people their musical escape?

Rebecca Wishnia recently earned her master’s degree in violin from UC Santa Cruz, where she studied with Roy Malan. A passionate chamber musician, she has performed in a variety of ensembles around the Bay Area, in addition to studying and teaching chamber repertoire at festivals each summer.