Imagine yourself as a publicist for the Philadelphia Orchestra. How can you promote your musicians when they share the stage with a circus troupe like the Cirque de la Symphonie? Maybe something like this:
“See the world’s greatest musicians convey the subtle nuances of Poulenc and Delibes while aerialists dangle from the ceiling by their thumbs or ankles!"
“See conservatory-trained violinists and cellists defy death by playing Rimsky-Korsakov while a gymnast rolls around the stage in a giant metal wheel, scant inches away!”
“See the Philadelphia Orchestra meet the ultimate challenge of human concentration: performing Bernstein’s overture to Candide while a clown juggles a half-dozen balls!”
Yes, I know — most people attend orchestra concerts to hear orchestral music. And most musicians join orchestras to perform orchestral music. Nevertheless, in the course of its long history, the Philadelphia Orchestra has willingly played background foil to such distractions as Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Luciano Pavarotti, Superman, and the Pennsylvania Ballet, not to mention P.D.Q. Bach.
Cirque de la Symphonie, a mostly Russian gymnastics troupe, is the latest beneficiary of the orchestra’s flexibility. These acrobats, trapeze artists, and jugglers have found an ingenious shtick: They travel the world performing their stunts not in circus tents but in concert halls with some of the world’s great orchestras, choreographing their movements to classical works. This “three-dimensional entertainment extravaganza,” as the Cirque’s promoters call it, is an inspired audience-building gimmick: It exposes the Cirque’s aerialists to music lovers (like me) who rarely set foot in a circus tent; on the other hand, it introduces orchestras to families and children who otherwise might never set foot in a concert hall.
Whether the whole is greater than its parts in such combinations is a valid question. At this weekend’s two concerts, the Orchestra played beautiful works by Tchaikovsky, Leonard Bernstein, and Dvořák, but it’s safe to say that no one in the audience came to hear the music. Cristian Măcelaru, the Orchestra’s conductor in residence, acknowledged as much when he urged the audience to come back again for a real Orchestra concert. A taped sound track, or a commercial band, would have served the Cirque’s gymnastic purposes just as well — but then the Cirque would never have gained entrance to the Kimmel Center.
Some artistic combinations simply defy critical logic, which is what artistic endeavor is all about. Years ago, I first developed an interest in Il Trovatore by watching the Marx Brothers trash Verdi’s chestnut in A Night at the Opera. No doubt some kids in Sunday’s audience who watched a dancer rotate five Hula-Hoops simultaneously to Khachaturian’s Lezghinka will return some day to hear the composer’s complete Gayne suite.
Oh, did I mention that I had a great time?