Review: The Creatures of Prometheus, Philharmonia Orchestra
4.0Overall Score

This is my first online concert and I’m honestly not too sure what to expect as I sit on the sofa in my living room, with a charmingly simplistic drawing of a Greek warrior on my TV screen. Shortly after 7:30pm, a two-minute timer appears – very reminiscent of a New Year’s countdown – which on this cold December night seems somewhat appropriate

Stephen Fry has returned in partnership with conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Philharmonia Orchestra and, funnily enough, Beethoven’s music, to narrate Gerard McBurney’s version of The Creatures of Prometheus. During his introduction he seems, unsurprisingly, very comfortable in his virtual host role. Fry is a suitable choice for the material; as a sort of human font of knowledge, the myth of Prometheus rolls off his tongue as naturally as air. 

As the overture begins and my screen is filled with live footage of the orchestra, I’m immediately struck by a thought: I’ll actually get to watch the orchestra play, up close and personal. (Or as personal as one can get while remaining socially distanced.)

It is odd, yes, to experience this on my screen, it’s also the closest I have ever been to an orchestra. I can see their surprisingly calm and serene faces as they dance through the score in beautiful harmony, both audibly and physically. A wide shot of the string section reveals a synchronicity of swaying elbows, made more dramatic by the vast expanse the orchestra takes up. The cohort looks massive, spread across the stage to accommodate their mandatory two-metre distance. I imagine it’s an odd experience for them too, but it makes for some lovely angles of individuals as the camera dances around the stage. 

I’ve always been enthralled by the art of conducting so it is a real treat to have the same view of Salonen as the members of the orchestra themselves! 

Hillary Leben’s animation is surprising to me; I’d readily assumed a seamless, polished animated film, accompanied by the orchestral music. However, Leben’s animation is actually rather crude in nature: still seamless and still polished, but almost childlike in its simplicity. It’s an interesting contrast underpinned by Fry’s knowledgeable, authoritative spiel.

The longer the story goes on, the more incidences occur where I’m deeply disturbed by the faces Leben gives her drawn characters; the frantically dancing, unblinking, dot-pupiled gods will most definitely be the stars of my next nightmare.

Admittedly, the structure of the show is a surprise to me. I had imagined more visual storytelling alongside the live music; though the reality is quite different to my expectation, the surprise is a pleasant one nonetheless. However, there is a significant part of me that thirsts for a more visual stimulation. Beethoven did write it as a ballet after all and I feel slightly cheated of an alternative production which splices together the footage of the orchestra with footage of an understated ballet performance; or a fully animated, godly saga that accompanies the skilful musical offering.

BUT, this is a concert; not a ballet. So, I make my peace with its form to enjoy it for what it is. Guy Wigmore’s editing and direction brings all the elements of the show together and ties them up with a congenial bow. And “what it is” is a thoroughly enjoyable 90 minutes. 

I’m no classical music buff, but I’ve always enjoyed listening to classical music. I actually found myself retreating into my own mind during the show, creating worlds that had nothing to do with Prometheus or his creatures. So, in a way, I suppose I got two shows in one!

The Creatures of Prometheus is available online. For more information and tickets, see the Philharmonia Orchestra website.