In Paris in 1855, composer Hector Berlioz premiered his "Te Deum" for 900 singers and instrumentalists. In Munich in 1910, Gustav Mahler debuted his "Symphony of a Thousand" for almost that many musicians. And this weekend composer Lisa Bielawa unveils her "Crissy Broadcast" for 800 singers and players -- in San Francisco at Crissy Field.
Call it a happening, connecting freewheeling San Francisco to the grand tradition of spectacle in classical music. Bielawa has composed her 50-minute piece for an army: 14 ensembles, including choruses, bands, orchestras, electric guitarists with battery-pack amps, even a group of traditional Chinese instrumentalists.
Against the backdrop of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate, it will fan out across 100 acres on the San Francisco Bay shoreline, as the musicians intersect with bicyclists, skaters, joggers and families with picnics.
A San Francisco native who has made her career in New York, Bielawa, 45, expects "an unbelievable outpouring of joy from the musicians, from everyone", as her "spatial symphony" transforms the park, a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. (There will be two free performances on Saturday, one on Sunday.) In May, when Bielawa put the piece through a test run in a Berlin park, with a mere 250 or so musicians zigzagging among some 5,000 onlookers during two performances, she says, "It was like suddenly being on another magical planet."
Her aims include breaking down walls between performers and audience (listeners get to roam among the musicians); between professional and amateur musicians (both will participate); and between music and the environment (she has matched trombone and tuba pitches to those of foghorns on the bay).
With a $200,000 budget, most of it from foundations committed to the arts, the project has been several years in the making. And while composing can be a lonely pastime, "Crissy Broadcast" allows Bielawa to be what she is -- a "people person," out and about, creating a community through her work.
During a day of rehearsals at the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts, she spread out her map of Crissy Field, coded in 14 colors representing the 14 crisscrossing ensembles. Her musical materials -- short, bold melodies, some like bird calls, some like funky anthems -- will be "broadcast" through the 100 acres, as the ensembles play their parts, echoing and embellishing and passing them along from musician to musician and group to group.
"It's like a giant game of telephone," she told 13 members of the school's guitar ensemble. "Play a phrase, hear it and pass it along."
Koji Yuan, a 15-year-old guitarist in the ensemble, expects "a cloud of sound" to travel around the park as the group moves here and there, intersecting other groups or moving away from them. Blake Johnson, a 15-year-old trumpeter in the Berkeley High School Concert Band and Orchestra, anticipates a dense "web of communication" across the park -- and is halfway hoping for foggy weather, so he can hear that matchup between foghorns and low-pitched instruments.
Percussionist Steven Schick -- artistic director of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, Bielawa's lead ensemble for the weekend performances -- likens the effect to "a snow globe in which you have these particles of music which are sort of swirling around you .... Lisa has timed it so that these sounds will move in waves through the space. If you're standing in the middle of it, you'll experience this sort of stupendous Doppler effect, where the music approaches you and recedes from you."
Bielawa grew up in the Lakeside Village neighborhood near San Francisco State University, where her father Herbert Bielawa taught musical composition. (Some of this weekend's participating band directors are his former students.) She attended Aptos Middle School in San Francisco (its band is among the "Crissy Broadcast" ensembles) and joined the San Francisco Girls Chorus when she was 12. (She now is artistic director of the chorus, which also is part of "Crissy.)
After graduating from Lowell High School (whose orchestra is part of the project, too) in 1986, Bielawa studied music at Yale, then made her mark in New York, singing with the Philip Glass Ensemble (she is still a member) and building her reputation as a composer.
She has a history of composing works for the great outdoors: Her "Chance Encounter" was performed in 2010 by a roving soprano and chamber orchestra along the banks of the Tiber River in Rome. Part of her "Airfield Broadcasts" project (Crissy Field is the site of a former airfield, as is Berlin's Tempelhof park), "Crissy Broadcast" builds on Bielawa's mission: to make music a communal event.
But will it work? Have no fear, says Joan Murray, director of the Golden Gate Philharmonic, another participant. A former teacher at Aptos Middle School, she was violinist Bielawa's orchestra teacher in the eighth grade.
Murray remembers, "Lisa came to me one day and said, 'I could write a musical.' And she did. She wrote the music and the script, and she did the choreography and taught the other students how to dance it, and then she sat down at the piano and played the accompaniment. And then she directed it, told the kids what to do, where to stand. Lisa even knew about lighting.
"So when she came to me about this latest thing at Crissy Field, I thought, 'Wow, that's pretty wild.' But if Lisa's in charge of something, it's going to be OK."
Part of composer Lisa Bielawa's "Airfield Broadcasts" project
When: 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Oct. 26, noon Oct. 27
Where: Crissy Field, 1199 E. Beach, San Francisco
More information: www.airfieldbroadcasts.org