The atmosphere was casual Friday night, but the artistry on display was disciplined and impressive at the Wichita Symphony Orchestra’s annual Blue Jeans Concert under the direction of Maestro Daniel Hege (the first of three performances of this program). Guest artists Cirque de la Symphonie, a troupe of nine performers from a variety of circus and athletic backgrounds, added aerialism, juggling, clowning, feats of strength and even a little magic to the Symphony’s program of light and popular classics.
As he has since 1997, KSN meteorologist Dave Freeman acted as Master of Ceremonies with a deft touch and a few self-deprecating nods to the unpredictable winter weather.
In the hour leading up to the performance, a festive atmosphere prevailed at Century II: mimes and “living statues” engaged early-arriving patrons, and music was provided by twelve bassoonists from the Wichita Bassoon Society.
I had the opportunity to help out with the instrumental “petting zoo,” allowing young concertgoers to try out several orchestral instruments on display. Some of the kids I spoke to are already involved in music and theater; others had no experience but were enthusiastic. Even a few adults were excited at the chance to pick up an instrument they might not have had time to learn before. One never knows what might trigger a lifelong interest in music: how many of my generation were turned on to orchestral music by the film scores of John Williams, for example? In addition to the Blue Jeans and Classics concerts this weekend, the Wichita Symphony and Cirque de la Symphonie have spent much of the past week performing for area schoolchildren; such events are a vital part of the Symphony’s mission of outreach.
The concert itself leaned heavily on French and Russian repertoire, fitting choices for both the Russian background of most of the Cirque performers and for the theatrical qualities of the ballet and opera scores. The waltz from “Sleeping Beauty” by Tchaikovsky and the “Can-Can” from “Orpheus in the Underworld,” for example, emphasized both the balletic and energetic qualities of Elena Tsarkova’s act (her first appearance was listed in the program as “contortion,” but that doesn’t really get across just how graceful her performance is; the “Can-Can” accompanied a ribbon dance). The kinetic juggling of Vladimir Tsarkov and Vova Tsarkov was accompanied by the Galop from The Comedians by Dmitri Kabalevsky, a standard for acts of dexterity.
A great deal of the performances’ effectiveness came from effective timing, matching musical gestures to physical ones, crossing the bridge between the traditional approach to circus music in America (I only heard one drum roll all night) and the ballet and pantomime that has influenced European cirque.
Here’s where the Wichita Symphony accomplishes something that, while not flashy, is important to the success of a performance like this: although it was sometimes difficult to hear the orchestra over the oohs, ahs, and applause of the audience, the sense of timing was never in doubt. Accompanying stage performers can be tricky, if for no other reason than the temptation to watch the show, and Friday’s concert even pulled Maestro Hege off the podium once or twice to take part in an act, leaving the orchestra to continue without him. No matter: professionalism wins out, casual attire and carnival atmosphere aside.
The programming also smartly paired the stars of the Cirque with soloists in the orchestra, such as in Christine Van Loo’s aerial rope act, accompanied by concertmaster John Harrison’s solo violin in Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Danse Macabre.” It personalized the orchestra, making Van Loo’s fantastic turns and twists in the air seem more like a duet with the musicians than a simple solo and accompaniment.
Harrison, along with principal clarinetist Sarunas Jankauskas and harpist Jane Hyde, was also featured prominently in selections from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Capriccio espagnol, Op. 34,” segueing from an orchestra feature to aerialist Aloysia Gavre swinging and diving on a hoop suspended from the scaffolding. The orchestra had several pieces all to themselves as well, starting with a sparkling rendition of Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Festive Overture, Op. 96” (also including some fine moments for Jankauskas on clarinet, as well as the rest of the winds and brass) and Johann Strauss II’s famous polka “Thunder and Lightning.”
The last few acts of the concert were truly breathtaking: Alina Sergeeva with the simple hula hoop, starting with one and working her way up to more than a dozen gyrating around her at once; strongmen Jarek and Darek (who balanced like gymnasts, but instead of doing handstands and planking on a pommel horse did so balanced on each other’s heads or upraised arms), and the duo of Alexander Streltsov and Christine Van Loo. Streltsov is a co-founder of Cirque de la Symphonie, and the artistry he brings to his chosen medium – a pair of silk banners suspended from the scaffolding, which he twists and climbs like ropes—is a clear example of the crossover between traditional acrobatics and classical dance that the company pursues.
Guy Vollen is a conductor, horn player and award-winning composer and holds a doctoral degree in musical composition. He blogs about music at Medleyana.com.