Extreme event: Tacoma Symphony Orchestra, Cirque Musica under one roof

rosemary.ponnekanti@thenewstribune.comOctober 4, 2013 

Cirque Musica, featuring the Tacoma Symphony, will perform Sunday night at the Tacoma Dome.


Anyone remember “Hooked on Classics”? Those albums from the 1980s that put a synthesized clap track to classical music favorites? Even if you haven’t heard it, the idea might make you cringe – metronomic hand-claps slapping a disco backbeat onto Vivaldi and Beethoven. But the albums soared on the charts and brought classical music to a new audience.

Thirty years later, there’s another idea to bring classical music to more people, and it’s coming to the Tacoma Dome this Sunday night: extreme circus backed up by symphony orchestra in a unique twist on the usual pops concert. As the Tacoma Symphony plays through easily recognizable classical pieces such as the “1812 Overture” and Ravel’s “Bolero,” acrobats from Cirque Musica will swing, sway and soar in elaborately produced acts above and beside the musicians. Tacky gimmick? The 21st-century version of “Hooked on Classics”?

“The world is changing in terms of how people want to be entertained,” says Stephen Cook, who’s produced the touring Cirque Musica since it began in 2010. “Some people will still go to a symphony hall. Another group would never do that – they don’t want to dress up, they’re scared of the ticket prices. That’s the niche we want to fill. We’re bringing classical music to the masses.”

There’s definitely no shortage of entertainment in Sunday’s Cirque show.

The show includes all of the elements we’ve come to expect from human circuses: glossy costumes, dramatic lighting, impossibly rigged overhead acts that fly out into the audience. But whereas Cirque du Soleil and its offspring use pop, world or rock-based soundtracks, Cirque Musica uses excerpts from classical music played by a live orchestra.

Take “The Perch.” It’s an aerial contraption some 40 feet over the stage, on which a mother-daughter pair (the renowned Wallenda Highwire Duo) flow in and out of poses to the drama of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. Or the giant Wheel of Death — actually two wheels, spinning high up, on which the daredevil España family run and balance to the fierce score of “Mars” from Holst’s suite “The Planets.”

Ravel’s “Bolero” accompanies a sinuous arm-balancing act, the “Hoedown” from Copland’s “Rodeo” plays for (of course) a trick roper, and Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto is played by a violin soloist — not the TSO’s concertmaster, Svend Ronning, but Veronica Gan, who has trained with the show — soaring out over the audience on an aerial harness.

Other acts include former Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey clown David Larible pretending to be a conductor, aerial hoop (lyra), rola bola and the Españas riding motorcycles around the Globe of Death.

Musically, the score includes “Flight of the Bumblebee,” “Night on Bald Mountain,” John Williams’ suite from “Star Wars” and some more pop-oriented music written by 1980s pop starlet Debbie Gibson. The orchestra will be conducted by Cirque Musica’s conductor, Christopher Walls. All this happens on a thrust stage, with the Dome configured into a smaller, more intimate setting. (Cirque Musica also tours symphonic halls; similar act Cirque de la Symphonie played with the Seattle Symphony at Benaroya last July.)

“I pick the acts to perform with particular music,” Cook explains. “It’s programmed to hit all demographics. People that don’t know classical music will still love it.”

So do the local musicians, according to Cook and TSO executive director Andy Buelow.

“I have found the TSO to be the most adventurous orchestra I’ve ever worked with – the musicians seem to love shows like this,” says Buelow, who has wanted to collaborate with the Dallas-based Cirque Musica for a while. “It’s the kind of performance that stretches the envelope, introduces new audiences to the TSO, and expands people’s concept of what we’re all about.”

But while reaching new audiences in a new venue might be a good thing for the orchestra, Cirque Musica doesn’t showcase the best of what a symphony can do: play challenging, electrifying music as a team. A Dallas reviewer criticized Cirque Musica as “subjugating” the orchestra’s work to a soundtrack, and it’s easy to see the show as a gimmick.

TSO music director Harvey Felder, though, looks at it another way.

“It’s an interesting question: What does a modern symphony orchestra have to do to survive, to keep the lights on and pay salaries?” says Felder. “I wrestled with this early on in my career. I said there were lines we wouldn’t cross to be a professional orchestra. But these lines are getting more blurred. Now I look at it like any freelance musician does all the time — one week they play Beethoven, the next they play for a Broadway show, then they do an opera, then they’ll back up a pop singer. That’s the way they can put shoes on their kids’ feet.

“Some orchestras, like the Philadelphia, can stay pure in the genre that defines them. But most other orchestras have to open up a bit. Our core mission is still Beethoven, Mozart, Strauss. But I’m not opposed to having a circle around that core, to build support from the community and visibility, and pay the bills. Because if there’s no money, you can’t play Mozart. That’s the reality we live with.”

And as with “Hooked on Classics,” it might convert people to classical music.

“Not everyone will go from this to being a passionate symphony lover,” Felder says. “But it lowers the veil. It’s an introduction.”

Says Cook: “I see audiences that within 10 minutes are cheering and yelling and clapping to classical music. You wouldn’t see that anywhere else.”

Cirque Musica

What: Cirque Musica with the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra

When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: Tacoma Dome, 2727 E. D St., Tacoma

Tickets: $27-$82

Information: 800-745-3000, cirquemusica.com, tacoma symphony.org, ticketmaster.com

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@thenewstribune.com

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