One Found Sound: Meet the Upstart S.F. Orchestra That Wants a Boisterous Crowd -- And Doesn't Have a Conductor
By SHEREE WHITELEY
One Found Sound performs tonight at Salle Pianos.
When Sarah Bonomo and Scott Padden met up after completing their degrees at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, it wasn't to commiserate over the struggles of life post-graduation. They wanted to build a team -- sans captain or coach.
Bomo and Padden, along with Georgeanne Banker and¬†Emily Botel-Barnard, talked to friends and friends of friends. The result was a chamber orchestra of approximately 40 young musicians called One Found Sound. These fresh faces play the works of many iconic composers: the chamber orchestra's first concert featured the works of Stravinsky, Britten, and Beethoven; its second concert tonight, Friday, Feb. 7, will feature 20th Century works by Stravinsky, Mahler, and Copland. OFS operates without a conductor, which puts a special pressure on members to communicate well and know their parts. The group also strives for a completely flat leadership structure, wherein each person has an equal voice, decisions are made democratically, and leaders change throughout every performance. We spoke with Bonomo, Padden, and Banker about forming a chamber orchestra, putting on two concerts, and running a successful fundraising campaign in less than a year. One Found Sound performs tonight, Friday, Feb. 7, at Salle Pianos and Events ($15-$30).
One Found Sound came together after the trial rehearsal in May 2013. What was that day like?
SP: It was the first time a lot of us had gotten back together since we were in school. We used to collaborate on a daily basis, and even if we were doing something that wasn't necessarily the most enjoyable thing, we all still dug playing with each other. So when we got in that room ... it kind of felt like coming home.
GB: Also we were able to be autonomous. It was like, "We are musicians. We graduated with this education. Now we can apply this to our own ensemble." One thing that we sorted out at that first rehearsal was the importance of having a democratic rehearsal process.
The One Found Sound group description reads: "Our performances aim to break the barriers of the classical music stigma, to bring it back to its glory days of boisterous audiences." What do you mean by the "glory days?" And what do you strive for in terms of interactions with and reactions from your audiences?
SB: Audiences in Mozart's time would throw food if they didn't like the music. If they did like it, they'd have the performers repeat the first movement three times.
SB: If you're at a rock concert and they're playing your favorite song, you're not going to sit there and think "that's my favorite song" in your head. You're going to yell and shout.
SP: I think the idea of being quiet is that, "This is beautiful music, and you should hear it to its fullest." It's our job to convince the audience and draw them in.
So, somewhere between sit on your hands and be quiet, and a riotous bar crowd?
SB: I've played in bands, and when you're at a noisy bar, it's something really special when you play something that gets the bar to be quiet.... If you play something that touches people, you won't have to tell them how to behave.
The space at Salle Pianos put the audience at your inaugural concert within an arm's reach of performers. Was that a purposeful move?
SP: I don't know if that's necessarily something we'd planned on, and it was great that the room was totally packed -- also something we hadn't totally planned on -- but having people right there with you, you can't avoid interacting with them. Even if it's just telling them "Hey, my bow might hit you in the face. I'll tell you when to duck."
Sarah, you wrote that you and your friends were "challenged with finding a platform on which to engage professionally" in your field after graduating. What would you say the average age of a One Found Sound member is? Do you think having so many young members shapes the group in any certain way?
GB: It goes from early 20s to early 30s. It's not limited to that, it just happens to be that way.
SP: We want wisdom, and we also want people who have opinions, but you have to have an energetic, young spirit. There are times, when you play with people who are older, that their way is the only way. We believe everyone has an opinion worth listening to.
GB: We're not looking at this group as an alternative to getting an orchestral job, but as a different way to express yourself.
SB: It's easy as a young person ... to let the rejection get to you. What I have found through my own struggle is that just because you don't advance in an audition round or get a job doesn't mean you're not good enough to make a career.
Operating without a conductor isn't a new idea. What incentivized you to go that direction, and what challenges have you faced?
SP: This isn't a dig on conductors at all, but at the end of the day you're signing up to be at the mercy of someone else's artistic dream. Granted, there's a reason so many people want to be in major orchestras.... For us it's a little different because we want to give everyone a chance.
GP: I've played in baroque ensembles where there's someone who starts the piece and it's really up to the musicians, and you have this great level of autonomy.
SB: It's a little scary without a conductor because of logistics. It involves a lot of trust that everyone in the ensemble is going to know what you're doing and what they're doing, and they're going to pay a lot of attention to you, and care about you.
Sarah, in your press release you wrote: "There is a disengaged and often alienated audience in our own age demographic." How do you hope to engage younger audience members?
SB: I think we all, as young people, have found that our peers who aren't musicians don't really understand the symphony or classical music world and have a somewhat stereotyped vision of it. What makes our group great is that the four of us feel like it's our responsibility to bring the excitement we feel to people our age. That's going to be how to preserve our art.... We want to give the music a fresh face. I think the model of how we operate relates to a lot of people in our generation. Young people want their voice to be heard and their opinions to matter. With the proximity of the audience to the group, they can really see us interacting with each other and interacting with them. And I think that, with how important technology is in young peoples' lives, they need a lot more stimulation to be engaged.
SP: One of the things we do after our concerts is have a reception, where after you sat close to a first violinist you can go talk to them, find out where they grew up, and maybe you grew up there too, and moved to San Francisco for a similar reason -- it just wasn't music necessarily. I think a lot of us have the same story.
GB: We want to engage people in a way that hasn't been done in a while. That's sort of what we're trying to do in terms of stimuli. When you're up close there's so much to look at. You can see how much we interact with each other when we're playing, and I think that's something that people didn't know happens.
Concert attendees can see the "leader" change song by song, and pick up on some signals between group members. What would you say is the key to staying in sync without a conductor?
SP: It's a vibe thing. You feel the pulse of the music, and we all move with that.
Talk to me about the group dynamic/vibe. How have you decided who to bring in? Ever had someone not work out?
GB: It usually works out that the people who want to play with us are the ones we would want. It's not a cool-kids thing.
In the near-year since your trial rehearsal, you've produced an inaugural concert, planned a second, ran a successful fundraising campaign, received funding from Fractured Atlas, and played a packed show at Revolution Caf√©. What would you call your crowning achievement?
SB: I'd say the most rewarding thing for us is proving to ourselves that we can produce these concerts and make them successful, with bodies in the chairs.
GB: We can see people during the performance enjoying it, and that's extremely rewarding.
How about your greatest struggle?
SB: The administrative side. It's a learning experience.
SP: And there's only so much we can do without money. There's a lot of really exciting new music out there, but you've got to pay to get it.
SB: I think money is always one of the most difficult things for anyone who's trying to build something from scratch.
GB: It's also having the time. We work other jobs, we have private students and other gigs, and having this in the mix is --
All: Another full-time job.
After your first concert in October, what did you like/not like?
SB: One of the things we did after the first concert was send out a feedback survey to everyone in the orchestra, and we asked them what they would change. We listen to our orchestra and let them tell us what we need to do differently, as far as making it a successful and enjoyable experience.
SP: One of the good things about all of us having experience in the orchestral audition circuit is that you're constantly criticizing yourself in a constructive way. That's something you can apply to anything you do.
What are you most excited about for the future?
SP: I think one of the greatest things we could do is be able to pay our musicians.
GB: We want to make it a unique experience for the bay area and the world.
SB: World tour!
SP: The arena tour!
SB and GB: 2020!