Beethoven’s ‘Creatures’ from Salonen and the San Francisco Symphony is strange but tuneful

United StatesUnited States Beethoven: Keith David (narrator), Hillary Leben (animator), San Francisco Symphony / Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 24.2.2022. (HS)

Animation of Terpsichore and the Graces dance by Hillary Leben (c) Stefan Cohen

Beethoven – The Creatures of Prometheus (complete ballet music)

When it comes to Ludwig van Beethoven’s one-offs, his only ballet dwells in relative obscurity in comparison to Fidelio, his only opera, and to his only violin concerto, both of which are staples in classical music.

Music director Esa-Pekka Salonen’s go at the complete but the much less famous score of The Creatures of Prometheus on Thursday makes it easy to understand why the work remains in relative obscurity. We may hear the overture (still one of Beethoven’s less often-played) and the contredanse in the finale (later repurposed for use in the Eroica symphony) often enough, and the rest proved to be agreeable. But it is not the bold, innovative Beethoven so familiar in his early piano works, written about the same time as this 1801 ballet.

Salonen programmed it as the kickoff of a two-week collection of myth-inspired works. Next week’s concert features Scriabin’s The Poem of Ecstasy and Song of the Flaming Phoenix by Fang Man, along with the arguably myth-rich music of Liszt’s second piano concerto.

Things started off with a bang. When narrator Keith David’s introduction described Zeus hurling lightning bolts in anger at Prometheus for stealing fire from the gods, Salonen and the orchestra launched with perfect timing into the sharply accented opening chords of the overture.

The narration and accompanying animation by Hillary Leben, a substitute for dancing, took a wry path. Explication was necessary since no record exists of the ballet’s scenario except that it borrows from one of the many and varied Prometheus myths. This one involves the demigod’s attempt to create from clay and fire human beings who then learn the skills for becoming completely human from the gods and muses. (This is not the better-known Prometheus story about his being punished cruelly by Zeus for such misbehavior.)

To create a plausible narrative to hang on the music, composer Gerard McBurney, an artistic advisor with the Chicago Symphony, wrote the script as a hybrid of program notes, story-telling, basic musical analysis and the occasional humorous aside.

Hillary Leben, who has designed projections for an A-list of American symphony orchestras, devised fanciful animation, mostly rough sketches depicting the individual scenes and a few attempts to make figures dance. Some moments were funny, including a naked Bacchus with a grape cluster in place of a fig leaf and, for some reason, a male Terpsichore with her sketchy muses. These were projected on two relatively small screens to the upper right and upper left of the orchestra, obscured in darkness when the musicians were silent.

Aside from a few verbal fumbles, David (whose credits include narrator for three Ken Burns documentaries) made the narration feel conversational and friendly.

As in most early Beethoven, the music bounces along tunefully with simple harmonies. Many of the 17 episodes begin, as much theater music did at the turn of the nineteenth century, with a slow introduction, often just a few measures, before getting into an allegro gear. The more extensive ones may have a slow interlude before finishing with a burst.

Some of the more colorful chapters include instruments Beethoven employed rarely, if at all. A basset horn (a larger-than-usual clarinet) indulges in dueling recitatives and arias with an oboe in one charming dance movement. Beethoven’s only use (ever) of a harp occurs in a dance involving several gods who play lyres.

Agreeable as all this can be, it doesn’t hold a candle to other musical depictions of gods. I couldn’t help thinking how much more interesting Handel’s pastorals were, let alone Beethoven’s own in his Symphony No.6. Whether it was familiarity or simply that it was a step up musically, the finale came to life with the appearance of that contredanse we know from Eroica.

Still, the whole score was worth a visit at least this once, if nothing else as a taste of Beethoven in a workmanlike mode.

Harvey Steiman

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