Cirque de la Symphonie mixes music with big-top action

Posted: August 01, 2011

If you've ever had the urge to watch a woman twirl a large hoop around her tightly wrapped bun in time to Rimsky-Korsakov's "Dance of the Buffoons," Thursday night at the Mann Center was your chance.

Not that it will be your last. Cirque de la Symphonie, a jolly entertainment that pits the Russian National Orchestra against acrobats, a contortionist, and one charming harlequin, is making the rounds. The concept isn't likely to leave anytime soon. The Philadelphia Orchestra has two dates this week with Cirque de la Symphonie at its summer site in Saratoga Springs, and its new strategic plan calls for development of a "cirque"-type show of its own.

A Philadelphia take isn't likely to bring out Thursday's crowd of Russians and Ukrainians. You could locate the audience's Eastern Bloc when the ensemble, led by Mikhail Tatarnikov, played the "Gopak" from Khachaturian's Gayaneh. These listeners knew just what to do, breaking into spontaneous clapping - on the after-beats.

All the classical world is looking for a nonmusical assist; as the circus was taking the Mann, the Philadelphia Orchestra was in Saratoga playing a soundtrack to Casablanca. There's a collective sense that, in this search for synergy between classical and the Spectacle Other, we're on a slippery slope. The more alluring the visuals, the harder it is to engage deeply with the music.

But Cirque de la Symphonie is all right - more than all right as long as no one thinks it carries the virtue of introducing classical music to the masses. My guess is these shows are destination points for most listeners, as was the Philadelphia Orchestra's outing with Beatles tunes at the Mann a month ago. Cirque de la Symphonie is sensitive to balance. Mostly, there's one acrobat on stage, with hoops, or a swatch of fabric, or a hook to take him or her aloft. The best moments explored a relationship between music and movement, a marriage that classical defenders should recall also occurs in something called ballet.

This is the summer the Philadelphia Orchestra has decided it has better things to do than nine Mann concerts, and the Russian National Orchestra - augmented by 12 local musicians - hardly came across as a weak substitute. Under Tatarnikov, there was something matter-of-fact in interpretations of Borodin's Polovetsian Dances and the "Waltz" from Khachaturian's Masquerade - an edge in the brass, an abandon at once exhilarating and an argument that Western bands may have prettified this repertoire too far beyond its ethnic sources.

What kind of physicality could match the last movement of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5? Two beefy men in nothing but bikinis and gold body paint, of course. Like molasses, Dariusz Wronski and Jaroslaw Marciniak interlocked limbs and torsos, using each other to achieve gravity-defying feats. It was more Leni Riefenstahl than Diane Arbus, but only just. When one perched upon the other, with nothing keeping him from disaster but hand upon bald head, you worried about previously unconsidered consequences of the Philadelphia humidity.

Triumphal they were, even if this was a strange idea for a finale. It seems doubtful the episode could have been an entry point into the classical repertoire for anyone, but just in case, I can strongly recommend the other movements of Shostakovich's symphony. As for the gold body paint, you're on your own.

Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5411 or

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