COLLINS creates new San Francisco Symphony branding to 'affirm that classical music is relevant'

"'Classical' music suffers from an ongoing and ruthless PR problem: it is too often perceived as an unchanging, dusty, old-world music for elite audiences only," says design agency COLLINS, which recently looked to do away with those perceptions once and for all.

COLLINS' work for the 108-year-old San Francisco Symphony looked to convey that classical music is a relevant, ever-evolving art form through new branding and a reimagined "mission as a model for the future".

It meant the agency worked to clarify, define, and express the Symphony's new vision for the future and help the organisation reassert classical music as a global, contemporary concern while staying rooted in its community.

The agency initially worked with the Symphony musicians, audiences, staff, executive leadership and board members to define this vision, which was used as the foundation for the new visual identity work.

The new designs are formed of a responsive, continually evolving visual system that aims to bring "the dynamic qualities of classical music" to life. Traditional typography that references the music's heritage was modernised using responsive and variable font technology that means every character can shape-shift in response to sound. The colour palette uses "timeless" black and white to suggest "formality", juxtaposed with more playful, dynamic tones inspired by the Bay Area landscapes.

A new online platform, the Symphosizer, is a central part of the rebrand as a response to the worldwide indefinite closures of concert halls. The idea is to recreate classical concerts for people to experience at home.

"At its heart, classical music is an interactive experience," says COLLINS creative director Louis Mikolay. "Because there are no lyrics, every listener is open to interpret the music in their own way. The Symphosizer enhances this idea by inviting you to explore a completely personal emotional journey during a performance. The motion of the letterforms symbolises the piece's emotional expressions, uplifting layers and details in the music that may have previously gone unnoticed. It brings a new depth to that personal journey."

The work came about partly due to a major organisational overhaul within San Francisco Symphony, which saw its music director of 25 years, Michael Tilson Thomas, end his tenure. Conductor and composer Esa–Pekka Salonen came on board to fill his shoes during the past year's Covid-19 pandemic, a time that's probably the most challenging period live music has ever faced.

Salonen's vision to demonstrate classical music's valid place in the 21st century made her a perfect fit for everything the San Francisco Symphony stands for. They worked together to form "an experimental blueprint for the future of symphonic music built upon a new and groundbreaking artistic leadership model," says COLLINS. It is comprised of eight collaborative partners, from a variety of cultural disciplines, including Bryce Dressner of The National, artificial intelligence entrepreneur Carol Reiley, bassist Esperanza Spalding, classical vocalist Julia Bullock, experimental flautist Claire Chase, violinist Pekka Kuusisto and composer and pianist Nicholas Britell.


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