In classical antiquity, the founding of Thebes orbits around twin brothers, Amphion and Zethus, and their fortification of the city. The brothers begin to build a wall, but as Zethus lumbers with heavy stones in his hands, his brother begins to strum a lyre. According to myth, Amphion’s music was so exquisite that the stones stirred and gently glided themselves into place.
The story exalts music as a bewitching force of animation, a lightning rod with the capacity to stir stones and protect cities. On Feb. 26, throngs of spiffy symphony patrons ambled into Davies Symphony Hall like Amphion’s stones taking their place to experience Beethoven’s “The Creatures of Prometheus,” music and myth coalescing under the soft glow of a waning crescent.
“The Creatures of Prometheus,” the only complete ballet in Beethoven’s oeuvre, follows the eponymous titan as he remedies humankind’s state of ignorance by introducing two clay human beings to ideals of art and science. In its original conception, Beethoven’s story served as an allegorical parable to promote the Enlightenment.
The San Francisco Symphony retrofitted Beethoven’s music without the movement. Keith David narrated from the stern of the orchestra in a voice made for storytelling. Warm light washes over the pit, and David’s smooth timbre transforms the stage into a hearth, kindling intrigue and intimacy reminiscent of a campfire story.
The absence of dancers, however, did leave the show bereft of movement. Instead, action unfolded on the big screen; two large monitors hung over the orchestra and played lighthearted animations by Hillary Leben that brought the story to life.
Leben’s characters are stylistically overdrawn, funny and fangled — a far yet not unwelcome cry from Beethoven’s haughty “ballet serio” premise. Laughter echoed up to the high ceilings of Davies as the bumbling, farcical Prometheus educates two matte, gray blobs of clay. The litany of supporting mythical characters enlivens the story, and each feels distinct and comic.
The goofy illustrations captured the eclat, coloristic qualities Beethoven imbues into the music. At the helm of the orchestra, Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen was the picture of panache and lithe grace. His frenetic baton reveled in dynamics, deftly maintaining a heartbeat of liveliness that pulses through quietude lyrical passages or slowed tempos.
“The Creatures of Prometheus” is suffused with leitmotifs and pastoral themes to envision the mythic world. With Salonen’s attention to detail, the San Francisco Symphony glazed the pastoral landscape in polish. Violins tapped in clean synchrony in Act 1’s “Poco Adagio,” capturing the creatures’ clumsy sense of awkwardness as they learn to walk. The harp in “Andante Quasi Allegretto – Adagio” twinkled with blooming romance, and when the god Mars teaches the humans about martial arts, “Allegro con Brio – Presto” cut through the air with knifelike clarity.
With its story’s stakes dependent upon excellence in execution, “The Creatures of Prometheus” is a bold program for an orchestra to perform. After all, why believe in the power of art if the art itself is unremarkable? However, with its perennially self-evident answer of acute, empathetic musicianship, the San Francisco Symphony and Salonen breezed by such doubt, making it a night worthy of memory in antiquity.