When he conducts the Wichita Symphony during next weekend’s Cirque Musica pops concert, Daniel Hege thoroughly expects some of the circus performers to mess around with him to amuse the audience.
“It’s a gag waiting to be done,” says Hege, the symphony’s music director since 2010.
But that’s OK with him. It’s happened before. He was caught up in a rope trick the last time the orchestra accompanied circus performers, two years ago. He was part of a magic trick another time. He was even at the mercy of a mime who took over his podium, forcing him to march around and sing a cappella.
“I was doing all the heavy lifting,” he says with mock exasperation.
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He survived with his dignity intact – well, mostly. Truth be told, he actually enjoyed it.
“You have to be a good sport about it. You have to ham it up a little. If people see you having fun, they’ll know it’s all right to have fun, too,” Hege says.
“When I was younger, I was more serious, like a lot of classical conductors. When people are named music director, they don’t want to do kids concerts, family concerts or pops concerts anymore. They turn them over to their assistants. I’m not that person,” he says. “As I get older, I’m having more fun with it. I like to know in advance (if there is a stunt) so I can be prepared, but a few times they have surprised me.”
Hege will find out what’s in store for him at 8 p.m. on Saturday when the Texas-based Cirque Musica troupe appears with the full orchestra of 60 members playing classical favorites while aerialists, contortionists, jugglers and rock-steady balancers create visual magic in time to the music.
“What I like about this concert form is that the orchestra plays classical music, which is still our bread and butter, but it brings in people who wouldn’t normally come to the symphony,” Hege says. “It helps dispel the incorrect view that classical music is stuffy and meant for only certain kinds of people. There is a lot of energy. People may recognize some music but not know where it comes from. Others may realize for the first time that, ‘Hey, I actually like this music.’”
The program for this concert includes a variety, from Rimsky-Korsikov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” to Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” (think “The Lone Ranger”) to Offenbach’s “Can-Can.” There are also Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” and Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” both made mainstream by Disney’s classic “Fantasia” (remember Mickey and the marching broomsticks?).
And there’s Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” which has also been enshrined as an annual tradition of the Wichita Riverfest since 1970. For Wichitans, apparently, you can never have too many carillons or cannon fire.
But the orchestra will stretch the classical boundaries a bit to encompass themes from “Star Wars” and “Superman” from Oscar-winning composer John Williams plus a medley of Beatles classics.
“The longer I’m here, the more I realize how flexible our orchestra is. I am convinced they can play anything – pop, jazz, country-western, anything,” Hege says.
Performers who will be interpreting the music with often-breath-taking grace and some heart-pounding thrills all come from a troupe founded in 2010 by Dallas entertainment producer Stephen Cook. He draws from a pool of generational circus talent from all over the world to fit the requirements of each appearance. He has expanded to include four programs.
Among those coming to Wichita are members of the Espana family – mother Wivien, 17-year-old daughter Noemi and 11-year-old son Elan. Wivien is an aerialist who will perform high above the stage on the Spanish Web (rope), Lyra (hoop) and aerial silks. Noemi is a contortionist who also joins her mother on aerial silks. And Elan is a juggling whiz with the Diablo (giant yo-yo on a horizontal string).
Also on the program are the team of Nina Chubrikova and Yury Kuznetsov, known as Duo Resonance, who made a TV splash for their balancing act on “America’s Got Talent.” There’s Simon Arestov, a master of the Rolla Bolla, who balances on a series of rolling cylinders stacked atop each other. There’s Veronica Gan, who solos on classical violin – Tchaikovsky’s Concerto for Violin in D Major – while soaring through the air on a wire.
And there are mother-daughter Rietta and Lyric Wallenda, sixth and seventh generation members of the famed Great Wallendas high-wire-walking family. The two will perform together with mother supporting daughter on a balance perch pole. And Lyric will join the Espana women on the aerial silks.
“It’s a great concept to combine circus and symphony. Absolutely, it has a different feel for both,” says Lyric Wallenda, who first ventured onto the high wire at 5, then onto the trapeze at 7. “It is a great honor to work with such artists. The musicians often started as youngsters, like we did. They’ve worked toward their professional goals all their lives, like we did. We have respect for each others’ talents.”
The musicians and circus performers generally get only one rehearsal before the performance.
“It’s a little different with each orchestra,” Wallenda says. “But the conductors have been very good about speeding up or slowing down to accommodate us. They know how physical our part is. They understand and work with us.”
Wallenda admits that she wasn’t educated in classical music before she and her husband of three years, Simon Arestov, the Rolla Bolla guy, began working with Cirque Musica.
“I liked the music, but I couldn’t tell you whether it was Tchiakovsky or whatever. Now I can, and my grandfather on my father’s side is thrilled because he’s a musician and composer in New Orleans who has written for Disney,” she says.
Wallenda, now 31, says that at age 13 she decided she wanted to try something besides circus performing as a career. She became fascinated by nursing.
“I went to one of those camps where you explored different career options. When I found out that the nursing students had to prick each other with needles for practice, that did it. I came back to the circus,” she says with a laugh.
Besides her Cirque Musica performances – once or twice a month at stops all around the country – Wallenda performs at NBA half-time shows and state fairs and in guest spots with other family troupes. She also does movie stuntwork. Her non-circus neighbors on both sides of her home in Sarasota, Fla., treat her just like everybody else in the neighborhood.
“It’s not exotic to them. They know it’s just the way I make my living. They see me set up my equipment in the backyard to practice and they come out to talk,” she says. “They’re friends rather than fans.”
Even though there are dozens of Wallendas divided into four performing troupes, there have been a few family defectors.
“I’ve had a couple of cousins who did quit performing as teens to do other things. They said it just wasn’t for them anymore. But they know they can always come back” she says. “Once circus is in your blood, you can’t get away from it. My 79-year-old grandmother is still performing on a 110-foot sway pole. As long as she can still make the climb, she won’t retire.”
If You Go
What: Wichita Symphony Orchestra pops concert featuring circus artists from the Cirque Musica troupe
Where: Century II Convention Hall, 225 W. Douglas
When: 8 p.m. May 2
Tickets: $25-$80; 316-267-7658 or www.wichitasymphony.org