Saturday’s Yale Symphony Orchestra concert will have all the elements of a seance.
A celebrated, long-dead Russian composer, Alexander Scriabin. His occult musical manuscript, stashed away in the archives of a French library, that describes a mystical combination of color, light and sound, which Scriabin believed could bring about the end of the world. And the enterprising graduate student and the lighting designer trying to channel Scriabin’s century-old ideas into present-day Woolsey Hall.
Scriabin envisioned his orchestral work “Prometheus: The Poem of Fire” as a dazzling spectacle featuring not only piano, orchestra and voice, but tongues of fire, bolts of lightning and bursts of color. But when the piece premiered in 1910, the technology available to Scriabin — a wooden disk topped with 12 lightbulbs — could not match his spectacular fantasies. He never saw the piece performed with the lights he had imagined.
This weekend’s YSO performance of “Prometheus” will be the first ever to reproduce Scriabin’s original vision using modern lighting.
“By bringing this piece out, we’re resurrecting his ideal concept from a century ago,” said Toshiyuki Shimada, the YSO’s music director and conductor.
Most performances of “Prometheus” include no light effects, though the YSO presented the piece in 1969 and again in 1971, reflecting lights off of smoke that billowed throughout Woolsey Hall, YSO manager Brian Robinson said.
A century after “Prometheus” premiered, Anna Gawboy GRD ’10, who is writing her dissertation on Scriabin, began studying the composer’s original manuscript at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris. The manuscrupt, now part of the collection of Yale’s Gilmore Music Library, has annotations describing an intricate pattern of light, color and sound that, according to Scriabin’s carefully developed mystic philosophy, could dissolve matter and end the world, Gawboy said.
Though Gawboy said a few productions of “Prometheus” have relied on the manuscript since it was made available in 1978, Saturday’s performance will be the first to combine an authentic interpretation of the manuscript with cutting-edge technology.
As she studied the Russian manuscript last January, Gawboy said, she realized Yale had the orchestra, the funding and the technology to make “Prometheus” live up to Scriabin’s ideas.
“He was envisioning a lighting show that was far in advance of his time, and it was really a vision of the future,” Gawboy said.
Shimada had wanted to resurrect the piece for years, he said, and he leapt at the opportunity to perform it when Gawboy and her adviser, Music Department Chair Daniel Harrison, approached him. Funding for the project quickly trickled in from several Yale institutions, Gawboy said.
With New York lighting designer and self-described lover of seemingly impossible projects, Justin Townsend, Gawboy began the complex process of realizing Scriabin’s ideas. The two wanted to make sure Woolsey Hall, which was built just before “Prometheus” premiered, complemented Scriabin, Townsend said.
“The goal isn’t to make a crazy rock show, but to use his detailed thoughts on color,” Townsend said Thursday, sitting in Woolsey. “How could we amplify the ideas but still stay true to them?”
Along with traditional bars of music for orchestral instruments and the piano, Scriabin wrote an additional bar for a “color organ,” or “luce” — an instrument he imagined as a keyboard attached to an organ that radiates not music but streams of light. Gawboy and Townsend recreated a luce from Scriabin’s descriptions, complete with a keyboard and a large, silver wooden disk with 12 fluorescent light tubes, echoing the original disk and lightbulbs. Mounted on the organ, the luce now dominates the Woolsey stage and will “play” the fast part of Scriabin’s melody, filling the hall with explosions of light, Townsend said.
The light tubes take advantage of new technology that allows the lights to respond much more quickly to the keyboard, Gawboy said, adding that slow response times have plagued many earlier productions of “Prometheus.”
Meanwhile, 12 colored LED lights, one for each of Woolsey’s columns, will bathe the entire concert hall in color throughout the piece, “playing” the slow parts, Townsend said.
Gawboy said working with the lighting design crew has changed her thinking about her dissertation on Scriabin’s philosophy concerning light and music: “I’m definitely going to have to revise,” she said.
With the most loyal recreation of “Prometheus” yet, it remains to be seen whether the colors and music will, as Scriabin predicted, dissolve matter, elevate the audience to a transcendant spiritual plane and end the world, Robinson said. But whatever happens, Shimada said he promises a unique show.
“I’m just hoping that this is really the one where everybody will say for decades, ‘This was quite a performance!’ ” he said.
The concert will start at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $2 for students.