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To draw fresh crowds, symphony offers modern take on classical music

March 28, 2015 at 3:43 PM EDT
As part of a growing national movement to revitalize the symphony experience for patrons, the San Francisco Symphony recently launched SoundBox, a show series meant to create new musical experiences and entice new audiences. KQED's Cy Musiker reports.
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CY MUSIKER: Many who come here tonight may not know a lot about classical music, but that’s part of the experiment.

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: Soundbox is designed to appeal to people, many of them younger people, who never have attended many classical concerts before.

CY MUSIKERThis is a laboratory for the San Francisco Symphony and music director Michael Tilson Thomas, who are looking for ways to create new musical experiences — and entice new audiences.

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: Since the 1970s, I’ve been really interested in how the installation of music can change the audience’s perception of it. Of course, for musicians it’s all enveloping, it’s all around us, it is a kind of separate world, but how to bring people who are listening to the music more inside the world that we the performers are experiencing?

CY MUSIKERBy day, the space is a cavernous rehearsal hall.

By showtime, lighting, a bar and custom acoustics designed for the event completely transform the space.

The musicians are members of the same orchestra that performs on the main stage of Davies Symphony Hall, where they’ve honed their skills playing classical symphonies. But in this venue, there are multiple stages…and opportunities to broaden the repertoire.

NICOLE CASH: Playing in Soundbox is a completely different experience. Musically, we do get to do different things. The piece that I played was a very angular, loud, rambunctious piece.

CY MUSIKEREach set lasts 20 to 30 minutes, with ample intermissions to mingle and buy drinks. And at $25, the price of entry here is a fraction of higher-tier symphony seats.

NICOLE CASH: It’s a more relaxed atmosphere and I think that is the first thing that kind of turns younger, maybe, less exposed people off the whole symphony experience. They think they’re going come in here and they have to be quiet and it’s stuffy and everyone is wearing a tuxedo or a ball gown and you can’t talk and you can’t move and you don’t know when to clap.

CY MUSIKERThe free-flowing atmosphere is targeting a younger, more diverse audience, but the goal is to hook them into serious music.

MARY GOREE: It is very challenging music, I usually tend to, when I go out, go to more kind of either rock-oriented shows, or hip hop shows, or kind of more modern shows. But I find that. It blew my mind.

CY MUSIKERThe series is just four months old, and the symphony has made some unusual marketing choices — like not putting a link to Soundbox on its homepage, says classical music critic Joshua Kosman.

JOSHUA KOSMAN: It’s a sort of an anti-marketing strategy where you kind of make sure not to give too much information that will bring in the regulars and squeeze out the new comers and the adventurers.

CY MUSIKERKosman said that symphonies need to justify their existence in a landscape crowded with entertainment options.

San Francisco Symphony board president Sakurako Fisher argues that Soundbox is about more than selling tickets. It’s about staying relevant.

SAKURAKO FISCHER: It’s not a business. It is part of the necessity of the human heart. It’s a part of what makes a vibrant community, and as long as we think that’s important, I think that, sure, would we like to be more like a business? Who wouldn’t. It’s not. I accept that. Let’s move forward then.

CY MUSIKERIf the current run of sold-out performances means anything, Soundbox may be the prototype for the next era in classical music.

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