I can't remember a time when I was so conflicted about the merits of an Oklahoma City Philharmonic pops concert. Titled “Cirque de la Symphonie,” this recent visual extravaganza attempted to juxtapose the worlds of the big top and symphonic music. It proved to be an odd fit.
Circus shows have a long tradition of appearing in gigantic tents that could be easily transported. Later, those shows found acceptance in sports arenas. The concert hall, in contrast, has long been synonymous with the symphony orchestra, a proper setting for an august institution.
Trying to merge those two disparate worlds is a bit like making apple/orange comparisons. Few could deny the genuine appeal of this company's aerialists, jugglers, quick change artists, strong men and contortionists. But how do such acts complement an orchestra?
The reverse is even more perplexing. With the focus on the circus acts, the orchestra ends up serving as a very expensive backup band. That's why most “Cirque” productions use canned music.
And while audiences have gotten used to hearing an amplified orchestra for pops concerts — which typically feature Broadway, film or holiday music — miking an orchestra for classical selections creates odd sonorities and balances.
The evening started with a less than impressive reading of Copland's “Fanfare for the Common Man,” which quickly segued into a showcase for a quick-change artist who amazed with her ability to hide, then reappear in a completely different costume in a matter of seconds.
A character known as the Red Harlequin then captivated the audience with an impressive display of ring juggling. No matter how many rings he kept in the air, the Harlequin made his act look completely effortless.
One of the evening's most innovative numbers featured an artist who twirled what looked like a window frame. The Russian artist then ratcheted up the level of difficulty by spinning a gigantic cube.
Other standouts included an acrobatic gymnast whose rope tricks ranged from climbing and twirling to spinning and dangling, and a pair of strong men who accomplished some amazing balancing routines.
The evening's most impressive routine featured a couple whose artistry with lengths of red silk suspended from the grid was simply spectacular. Carefully wrapping their arms and legs in this colorful fabric allowed them to strike poses and twirl in tandem.
The routine's climax, a remarkable display of strength and agility, featured Alexander Streltsov flying high over the audience, with yards and yards of red silk flapping in the breeze created by his momentum.
Fortunately, this production also allowed the orchestra to be showcased alone. With conductor Douglas Droste at the helm, the Philharmonic deftly negotiated the busy textures and grand flourishes of John Williams' music from “Hook” and “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.”
As impressive as the “Cirque de la Symphonie” routines were, I'm always troubled when a concert that is designed to showcase the orchestra instead relegates it to the background, or worse yet, casts it in the role of aural window dressing.
As for producer Bill Allen's claim that classical music “serves as the glue” to unite these very different art forms, the result is not unlike trying to use Elmer's to bond two nonporous materials. It's simply not going to hold up when it counts.
— Rick Rogers