Smell the Music: Inviting a Perfumer Into the Concert Hall

It was time to smell Scriabin’s “Prometheus: The Poem of Fire.”

This music, from 1910, has an element of synesthesia in its score, which calls for a color organ — a keyboard instrument that projects lights of a dozen hues — along with a full orchestra, a piano soloist and a choir. But in October at Davies Symphony Hall, the home of the San Francisco Symphony, the piece was being prepared with an additional sense in mind.

A group had gathered in the auditorium to test an almost unheard-of idea: that a performance could be accompanied by something like an olfactory poem, a narrative series of perfumes released through diffusers between seats and a set of futuristic cannons, called vortexes, that were developed for this occasion to shoot out rings of scented smoke.

Onstage, the pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet practiced his solo part in “Prometheus,” which the San Francisco Symphony will perform March 1 through 3, while the conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen listened attentively to the wooden vortexes as they were being tested; the sound they made while emitting smoke, he noticed, was nearly a G.

Mathilde Laurent, Cartier’s longtime perfumer, who had designed the scents, double-checked notes on her iPad. For this day’s test, without the orchestra, she wanted to be sure the diffusers were timed to match the music. So they were going to play a recording overhead.

They had settled on one that Claudio Abbado made with the Berlin Philharmonic and the pianist Martha Argerich in the 1990s. After the Breton engineers who had designed and assembled the vortexes told everyone to take their seats, the “Prometheus” team quieted down, and waited.

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