Saturday, March 02, 2024

Smell-o-Rama and the Seven Doors


Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco
7:15 pm, Friday, March 1, 2024
Photo by Lisa Hirsch
Click to enlarge.

Last night (and tonight and tomorrow afternoon) was a giant extravaganza at San Francisco Symphony: Scriabin's Prometheus: The Poem of Fire and Bartók's one-act opera Bluebeard's Castle. If you're familiar with the Bartók, you know that it's got a big orchestra, complete with organ, offstage brass, two harps, celeste, etc. 

Lemme tell you, the Scriabin orchestra was even bigger: more brass, more winds, a piano, and chorus in addition to the organ, celeste, two harps, and so on. SFS went all in with the Scriabin, including the equivalent of the color organ that he requests and the scents he wanted, provided by perfumer Mathilde Laurent of Cartier.

I'd written previously about this concert, a public service announcement for anyone who might worry about the scented half of the program. So did Tony Bravo, in the SF Chronicle, and Joshua Barone, in the NY Times (both gift links). This turned out to be a reasonable concern: my partner and a friend both decided against going because of allergies or sensitivity to odors. Bluebeard is the obvious concert closer and Prometheus is only about 20 minutes long, but from the patron comfort standpoint, it would have made sense to reverse the program order so audience members had the option of fleeing if the scents were irritating or worse. I suppose such potential audience members could have come late, but there was always the risk that the scents would linger. did it all go?

Kind of mixed! The music side of Prometheus was in excellent hands, between Salonen and Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who is superb in general and certainly in some of the wilder reaches of the repertory. He was the pianist in Messiaen's Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine at SFS about a year ago, for example; this was one of MTT's rare forays into Messiaen.

I enjoyed the light show, which used spotlights, a giant ring of tubular lighting fixtures over the stage, and more of those fixtures upright around the stage. I don't know how the tubular fixtures work; they could change color, including gradually from one end to the other. Computers were certainly involved, and, well, maybe I should read the extensive program notes to see what types of lighting fixtures were used. I can tell you that my spectacularly strong eyeglass prescription meant that my lenses were able to split the fixtures into two different colors that appeared physically next to each other. That was weird.

While I enjoyed the light show, I also found it a distraction from the main event, that is, the music. And there was the anticipation of wondering what the scents would be like, what their effects would be, and when we were supposed to smell them.

Scent cannons, not to be confused with scene canons.
These were in the side boxes five rows ahead of me.

Scent cannons in the audience right terrace seating.
There were four in audience left terrace, plus a total of four in the orchestra-level boxes, two on each side.

Again, I should have read the program notes, which told you when in Prometheus the scent cannons would do their thing. But I didn't, leaving me to use my nose.

Now, I do not have the world's best nose. This is not the result of COVID; I didn't have the best nose, or even as good a nose as in my youth, before the pandemic. And I have never had a positive COVID test; while I was sick as a dog in December, 2023, tests on days 1, 3, and 5 were negative.

In any event, I don't have a particularly sensitive nose. At some point fairly early in Prometheus, I could sense a vaguely charcoaly, clay-like, earthy scent. From where I sat, and smelled, it was mild and inoffensive.

I think that the second scent was vaguely spicy; I don't have notes, but there was a point where I remember trying to tease out which spices I was smelling. Close to the end of Prometheus, the cannons truly went off,  opening up and spewing smoke that had a vaguely lemony scent.

That is, from where I sat, in Row T in the orchestra. I chatted for the first time with the fellow to my right, and he agreed that the scents were, well, underwhelming. A friend in the Loge asked me after the concert how much Lemon Pledge had gone into the last scent. Surely Mathilde Laurent would be horrified to hear this, that is, if she knows what Lemon Pledge is.

Yet another friend has told me that from where she sat, also in the Loge, the scents were in-your-face and unpleasant, the hall still reeked (her word) after the intermission, and the exposure to the particles made her eyes itch. Publicity for the program said that the scents were expected to disperse rapidly, but, well, it didn't work out that way.  

So, from my perspective, Smell-o-Rama was a bust. It's not good when a significant part of a performance has bad physical effects on people. The light show was fun, but between the lights and the aromatic suspense, I felt too distracted from the music, which was, to me, the most interesting part of the performance. I think the performance was swell (it's an odd work!), and sure, Scriabin wanted lights and scents, but unlike him, I'm not synesthetic. (If you are, tell me what your experience of the concert was! It was made for Scriabin, and you.) 

I would have liked to hear the music again! This would have been practical without the add-ons - Prometheus is all of 20 minutes long - but it is not to be, at least not this week. I here note that the only previous performances of Prometheus at SFS were in 1971, more than 50 years ago, and it was led by  Seiji Ozawa. I bet he was good, too.

Okay, on to the seven dwarves doors.

SFS has performed Bluebeard's Castle before, most recently in 2012. MTT conducted then, with Michelle DeYoung and Alan Held. DeYoung was back for this go-round, with bass-baritone Gerald Finley. It was semi-staged back then, with DeYoung and Held on a platform behind the orchestra. I remember it as being very good; I went twice and would have gone a third time if I hadn't been at a party in Palo Alto that day. I also remember that a native-Hungarian speaking friend told me that DeYoung's Hungarian was very good but Held's wasn't. And when the fifth door opened the production shone bright lights into the eyes of the audience, at least if you were in the orchestra.

What to say about Friday's performance? I was surprised by Salonen's conducting. The work started rather slowly, dark but with less ominous mystery than I would like. Less than Bartók would like, because there it is in the first measure: misterioso. The wind entry a few measures in starts with accented...64th notes (!), and they were too long. They are basically on-the-beat grace notes but sounded more like 16ths here. 

The performance felt strangely inert and without tension through sometime during the third or fourth door. (I was not taking notes, since I am not reviewing, but hoo boy do I wish I had been.) Anyway, yes, I was surprised, because this work would seem to be right in his wheelhouse. Well, he has surprised me before, with a Sacre du Printemps that didn't work for me and a lot of Beethoven that's been great.

It's possible that he was being considerate of the singers, making space for them to articulate the text, which both did extremely well. That said, I thought DeYoung was singing more carefully and with less freedom than I have heard from her in the past. Her voice is still big, still colorful, and still very well worth hearing. (For perspective, I first heard her in the 1998 Seattle Tristan und Isolde and most recently in 2019 as a fabulous Jezibaba in Paris, in Robert Carsen's amazing Rusalka production, a performance that also featured Karita Mattila as a jaw-dropping Foreign Princess, casually mopping the stage with Klaus Florian Vogt. Also jaw-dropping: DeYoung and the knife and her whole attitude.)

Finley was excellent and what surprised me is that his voice is smaller than I would have expected. "But you've seen him before, in opera!" I hear you exclaim. Yes, but both times were in works by John Adams, who requires amplification of singers. Those performances were in Doctor Atomic, 19 years ago, and 2022's Antony and Cleopatra. Finley withdrew from two other planned SFO appearances, in Sweeney Todd and Die Meistersinger, where he would not have been amplified.

There could have been more physical interaction between the singers, but they were placed on opposite sides of Salonen and both had scores in front of them. Despite not moving around a stage, DeYoung was physically expressive, with many gestures, turns of the head, looking at Finley, etc. He looked back at her but made much less of a physical impression.

Okay, well, let briefly address the fact that DeYoung is towering and Finley is not. To give you an idea of how tall she is, the top of her head was around where Salonen's was, and he was on a podium. Was she wearing heels? Maybe! She is very tall, regardless. So maybe there was some thought that putting the singers next to each other would be dramatically ineffective? Who knows.

Per previous, things did pick up around the third or fourth door. Yes, the fifth door was great, as you might have expected, though it might have been greater, or louder, with MTT; I think the organ was more prominent in 2012 than last night. The orchestra was gorgeously colorful throughout, with a lot of fantastic playing from the winds, harps, and percussion. I'm pretty sure that I saw Jacob Nissley and another percussionist playing the same xylophone at one point.

And in Bluebeard, the lighting wasn't at all distracting, because of the colorful score, the references to different colors in the text, and the fact that the lighting changes were all extremely appropriate. 

So, overall, an interesting evening at the symphony. I'd like to hear Prometheus again, and I'd like to hear a more dramatic rendition of Bluebeard. I wish I could get there again this weekend, since there are two more performances, but tonight I'm at the Kronos Quartet and tomorrow I'm at Left Coast for their Saariaho, Prokofiev, and Chew concert.


CruzSF said...

Thanks for the rundown of the evening. I love the Bartók and like the Scriabin, but was put off by the fragrance component of the concert. There was no way to know how strong the scents would be but it sounds like they were overwhelming for some people. I made the right choice.

Lisa Hirsch said...

.....and stayed home? :-)

Joe McClinton said...

Odd, where we were (center row P) the scents were innocuous, very subtle and not perfumy at all. I had to sort of "look" for them with my nose if I even thought about it. I've often had stronger scent experiences from ladies in the next row. So it didn't detract for me, but I had no idea it was so strong elsewhere in the house.
On the other hand, I definitely did like the light show! It may have made a difference that I spent some time getting familiar with the score beforehand so I had a (very slight) sense of what to expect.
Sadly, DeYoung has never sent me, though she delivered a fine C for the Fifth Door. I thought the characterization remained pretty much on the surface. Finley was deep and moving.