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Smelling Music? A Multisensory ‘Prometheus’ Delights at the SF Symphony

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A circle of red lights hovers above a symphony orchestra, bathed in indigo hues, inside a concert hall
The San Francisco Symphony performs Alexander Scriabin's 'Prometheus, The Poem of Fire' at Davies Symphony Hall on March 1, 2024. (Brandon Patoc)

So here’s the challenge: How does one present a 114-year-old piece of music by a composer said to be afflicted with synesthesia who, in the score, calls for a “color organ” — an instrument that does not exist?

Furthermore, how does one interpret this composer’s mysticism and artistic philosophy of merging the senses? How does one weave together so many intangibles and unknowns in a way that says, “Yes, yes, this is the way he would want it performed” — even though it involves significant labor and cost, and, oh right, only lasts 20 minutes?

That’s the challenge Esa-Pekka Salonen and the San Francisco Symphony faced when deciding to undertake Alexander Scriabin’s Prometheus, The Poem of Fire, a piece rarely performed due to risks both aesthetic and logistic. (It’s not exactly an easy commercial sell, either.)

And yet on Sunday, with colorful light splashed around the inside of Davies Symphony Hall, and special scents piped throughout the audience, Prometheus was a dazzling success.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the orchestra with pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet as the San Francisco Symphony performs Alexander Scriabin’s ‘Prometheus, The Poem of Fire’ at Davies Symphony Hall on March 1, 2024. (Brandon Patoc)

Before the orchestra played a single note, Davies resembled elements from the film 2001; bathed in red light, the sound baffling conjured David Bowman’s spherical helmet, and the grid of square holes in the stage wall recalled HAL’s central circuit boards. A giant circular lighting rig hovered over the stage. Around the side terraces and floor were situated 12 wooden contraptions looking like space pods.

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And then? The piece started in complete darkness. A faint spotlight appeared on conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, then vertical lights down the orchestra floor turned indigo. Overhead, the circle glowed green, illuminating pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

Three minutes in, I could smell the aroma developed by Mathilde Laurent from Cartier. I’d figured it’d resemble women’s perfume, but no — this was a complex, earthy scent. The lights changed colors corresponding to the music. A dextrous solo passage by Thibaudet was bathed in deep purple, and during one loud portion, what I thought was someone opening the concert hall’s doors to the bright afternoon sun turned out to be the side lighting burning bright white.

The scent got stronger — I thought of fern, madrone and damp bay leaves — and the music more swirling and intense. Swelling brass played against full-fingered piano runs as Scriabin’s score approached the moment, in the Greek myth of Prometheus (and, coincidentally, the beginning of 2001), when humankind is gifted with the power of harnessing fire.

The San Francisco Symphony performs Alexander Scriabin’s ‘Prometheus, The Poem of Fire’ at Davies Symphony Hall, outfitted with special lighting and smoke cannons, on March 1, 2024. (Brandon Patoc)

That arrived at the 13-minute mark, when the round doors of the space pods slowly opened, emanating wisps of mist. As the orchestra crescendoed to a climax, boom! — the space pod cannons launched smoke rings across the hall, zig-zagging over the audience in vibrant red and yellow light. The scent suddenly changed, lighter and less musky, to what seemed like citrus and lychee. I may or may not have whispered, “Oh my God.”

Did I say that was the climax? Alas, the joke was on me, because a 77-piece choir started filing into the center terrace to sing thunderously as the music intensified and the scent changed yet again, this time to a sweet herbal note reminiscent of Fernet Branca being poured in a houseplant boutique.

What followed in the final six minutes was pure wonderment at the scope of it all, and the capacity of humans to undertake such a vigorous challenge. At the gigantic fortississimo ending, Davies shimmered with red and yellow until a full blackout after the final thrilling chord.

A curtain call for the San Francisco Symphony performance of Alexander Scriabin’s ‘Prometheus, The Poem of Fire’ at Davies Symphony Hall on March 1, 2024. Left to right: Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen, Chorus Director Jenny Wong, lighting designer Luke Kritzeck, pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Cartier’s in-house perfumer Mathilde Laurent. (Brandon Patoc)

After the intermission, Béla Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle felt a bit like Carly Rae Jepsen having to follow Beyoncé. Gerald Finley and Michelle DeYoung were in fine form singing the tale of a doomed wife exploring a blood-stained castle, and the special lighting was used intermittently. But it was no match for the first half.

Scriabin is a composer with a diehard fanbase. During a 2015 performance of Scriabin’s piano sonatas at SFJAZZ by Garrick Ohlsson, some audience members had sheet music in their laps to follow along. Their passion comes from those moments when his singular, strange vision of music is beautifully realized.

It doesn’t happen often. Leave it up to San Francisco to pull it off.

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