Monday, March 04, 2024

Synesthesia, Scents and Singing at the SF Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony just hosted a wildly theatrical weekend with Scriabin's 1911 Prometheus, The Poem of Fire. The performance included a "color organ" that shifted hues according to directions from the synesthesic composer and "scent cannons" to bathe the hall in three different scents upon musical cues.
The "scent cannons" were an invention by the luxury goods company Cartier which used the occasion for a huge branding exercise.
Reactions from friends in Davies Hall ranged from puzzled ("the scents were, well, underwhelming") to dismissive ("It feels like a William Castle gimmick from the 1960s") to delighted ("When the scent cannons shot their smoke rings across the hall I squealed like a little kid"). I agreed with all of them.
The twenty-minute musical piece itself was fun, a throw everything but the kitchen sink orchestral extravaganza, with a piano concerto wedged into it along with a huge chorus singing for about 90 seconds in the final minutes.
Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted and Jean-Yves Thibaudet was the forceful, fabulous piano soloist whose shiny outfit made him look a bit like Barry Manilow.
As an overwhelming, cosmic experience like Scriaban envisioned, it fell short, but the attempt was delightful. Pictured above are Luke Kritzeck, lighting designer; Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor; Mathilde Laurent, Cartier perfumer; and Jean-Yves Thibaudet, pianist.
After intermission, with slightly foggy scented air hanging over the stage, Salonen led the orchestra in Bela Bartok's 1911 one-act opera, Duke Bluebeard's Castle. This is another maximalist work for a huge orchestra that is fronted by the singers playing the serial killer Duke Bluebeard and his latest wife/victim, Judith. She insists on seeing all the locked doors in her new husband's gloomy castle until she's entombed with three previous brides in Door Number Seven.
It's a dour tale, redeemed by a magnificent musical score. Baritone Gerald Finley felt a bit miscast as Bluebeard with a voice too light and pretty for the role. Breezy Leigh (center) started the work off with a spoken prologue. Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung has made the role of Judith her own over the last couple of decades, recording it twice, including one with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting. She looked and sounded great although there was a bit too much smiling for a character who sees blood embellishing all her husband's secret treasures.

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