The scent of a symphony: The Philadelphia Orchestra premieres a new work about how music smells

Jimmy López Bellido explores olfactory synesthesia in his new work, “Ephemerae.”

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Jimmy López Bellido, center, with conductor Raphael Payare, left, and pianist Javier Perianes, right.

Jimmy López Bellido, center, with conductor Raphael Payare, left, and pianist Javier Perianes, right. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

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This weekend, the Philadelphia Orchestra will perform the U.S. premiere of a new composition that asks: What’s that smell?

While writing “Ephemerae,” Peruvian composer Jimmy López Bellido learned that perfumers categorize smells in a way similar to ranges of music: high, middle, and low. So he wrote his concerto in three movements: the first is “Bloom” with its citrus floral tones, and the second is “Primal Forest,” evoking pine and lavender.

“The third one is called ‘Spice Bazaar,’” he said. “You have the feeling that you’re walking within a bazaar full of spices somewhere in the world, in an open-air market full of merchants and you’re infused with all these smells.”

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Composer Jimmy López Bellido poses for a photo at the Verizon Hall in the Kimmel Center.
Composer Jimmy López Bellido poses for a photo at the Verizon Hall in the Kimmel Center. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

Bellido is fascinated by synesthesia, a neurological condition wherein one sense is triggered by an unrelated sense, such as certain sounds triggering a perception of color. One of his earlier symphony pieces, “Synesthésie” (2011), was written in five movements for each of the five senses, exploring musically how they intertwine.

A variation of the condition is olfactory synesthesia, where a sound can trigger a smell. One synesthete posting on Reddit said music triggers their perception of smell. “A lot smells either very tangy and citrus-y, or nature-like,” they wrote. “When I’m in band class, we all smell salty like the ocean.”

Bellido does not personally experience any kind of synesthesia. He said his sense of smell had always been poor until a recent sinus surgery somewhat opened him to the wider world of odors.

“I had an operation to correct my piping, inside, and that opened up a lot of doors,” he said. “That was around the time I was writing this concerto. It was part of the motivation, because I have been deprived from experiencing lots of smells, and all of a sudden I was able to perceive some of them.”

Bellido said the main impulse to write “Ephemerae” was Spanish pianist Javier Perianes, whose playing he admires. The concerto was written specifically for Perianes.

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“He heard my first symphony and apparently he really loved it,” Bellido said. “He said, ‘We have to make this happen.’ So we sat down and we started to think about possibilities.”

Jimmy López Bellido poses for a photo
Composer Jimmy López Bellido (Courtesy of the Philadelphia Orchestra Kimmel Center, taken by Ashkan Images)

“Ephemerae” was commissioned by an international cohort of four ensembles: the Philadelphia Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Oslo Philharmonic, and the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra. Perianes has already performed it with the three, and again with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. This weekend’s performance in Philadelphia will be the first in the U.S.

Bellido knows other pianists will someday try their hand at “Ephemerae,” but wants to make a recording with Perianes soon so his interpretation will become the standard.

“So that he can leave a document,” Bellido said, “for a future pianist [to] consult.”

The Philadelphia Orchestra will perform “Ephemerae” this weekend with conductor Rafael Payare on a program with Mahler’s Symphony No. 1.

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