Beethoven’s ‘Prometheus’ at S.F. Symphony is not about the heavy stuff

Esa-Pekka Salonen offers a multimedia performance with joyful animated projections

Greek mythology, Beethoven, symphonic music — all heavy stuff — so what’s all the fun about?

Leave it to San Francisco Symphony Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen and animator Hillary Leben to create what the British newspaper The Guardian called “a fun and witty take on Beethoven’s ballet.” It’s coming to Davies Symphony Hall Thursday through Sunday.

Beethoven’s 1801 “The Creatures of Prometheus” — to be performed in its entirety for the first time by S.F. Symphony — tells the story of the Titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity, symbolizing the gift of knowledge and technology. In some versions, including Beethoven’s, the Titan is also credited with creating humanity from clay.

Beethoven was commissioned to write the score and given only two weeks (“like a Hollywood film deal,” says Salonen). It was early in his career, just after he completed his “Symphony No. 1.” The music will be new to most concertgoers, at least until the finale, which the composer used again in his “Eroica” symphony. Beethoven’s intention was to provide an Enlightenment-age parable of the humanitarian power of art, unfolding on Parnassus, the mountain sacred to Apollo, the god of the arts.

Salonen has long been involved with such stories. Two of his major works, “Nyx” and “Pollux,” are titled after Greek and Roman mythological characters, respectively.

“Greek mythology has shaped culture,” he said. “It is absolutely central in our experience of ourselves, our relationships and our emotional lives.”

In the traditional version of the story, Zeus, king of Olympian gods, takes a dim view of the Titan for being a champion of humankind, sentencing Prometheus to eternal torment, bound to a rock. An eagle — the emblem of Zeus — is sent to eat his liver, which then grows back overnight, only to be torn again.

Instead of the struggle between Titans and gods, Beethoven’s work focuses on Prometheus’ creation and molding of humans. Salonen supplements the story with a multimedia performance, enhanced by Gerard McBurney’s libretto and Leben’s hilarious animated projections.

Salonen’s upbeat approach is no surprise to anyone who knows of his “COVID fan tutte” operatic romp in Finland during the worst days of the pandemic. Of the ballet, Salonen said, “This is more about the trickster, somebody similar to Loge in the Wagner ‘Ring,’ than the tragic figure as he is also known.”

Illustrator Leben told The Examiner: “It was a joy creating the animations for Beethoven’s ‘Prometheus.’ I laughed the entire time I was drawing it!”

Leben is a projection designer as well as a comic artist and animator, who has published autobiographical comics. She said “Prometheus” was the first time she’s been “able to utilize both skills at the same time. Sometimes I still can’t believe they put my silly drawings up there with the San Francisco Symphony! … I love taking part in making this kind of music more accessible.”

The Beethoven concerts have a COVID-thwarted history. Originally, Salonen set them as part of his first season as S.F. Symphony’s music director in 2021, part of a two-week “Prometheus” program, with Franz Liszt’s eponymous symphonic poem to follow. The pandemic wiped out the whole season, including Salonen’s plans for concert versions of Richard Strauss’ “Elektra” and Bela Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle.”

The operas are gone, at least for now, as is Part 2 of the Prometheus celebration. But “The Creatures of Prometheus” has another chance, and in a live concert, rather than through Salonen’s streamed version in London. There, with Salonen as its conductor laureate, the Philharmonia performed the work in 2020 in the same narrated-illustrated production that’s coming to San Francisco.

The narrator is actor Keith David, who said, “I played Prometheus in Aeschylus’ play ‘Prometheus Bound’ many years ago, but only heard of Beethoven’s composition. Having an opportunity to perform this great work with such a prolific conductor as Esa-Pekka is like living a dream.”

Using conservatorships to deal with gritty urban issues

“Half the state thinks we conserve too many people, and the other half thinks we don’t conserve enough.”

Endorsement: Here’s one simple way to help crime victims in San Francisco

With Prop. D, The City’s voters can do more to help crime victims