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March 12, 2010

Baltimore Symphony goes to the circus

Admit it. The first time you heard about the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s “Under the Big Top” series of circus-theme concerts, your cynical muscles started clenching.

And when you spotted publicity photos of music director Marin Alsop in a ringmaster’s get-up (what were they thinking over there?), you just knew the whole thing had to be too darn silly.

Well, relax and get over it. This project could turn out to be the sleeper hit — and hoot — of the season.

Thursday’s concert, featuring the brilliant flying, juggling, contorting troupe called Cirque de la Symphonie, might have settled for mere gimmickry, from the smell of popcorn and sight of cotton candy in the lobby to the stage decked out with streaming fabrics behind the orchestra and bathed in show-biz lighting. But Alsop constructed too substantive of a program to be mistaken for a pops night out, and she made sure that the music registered with terrific impact, even when the cirque folk had the limelight.

It was cool to

hear collective “oohs” and “ahs” rise from the crowd at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall — people really did get into the circus mood — and also to hear shouts of approval for such a gritty score as the Suite from Bartok’s ballet “The Miraculous Mandarin.” That piece was wisely delivered without any visual extras, but the rhythmic thrusts and melodic leaps in the music created their own kind of dazzle. Alsop was in her element here as she drew a taut, biting response from the orchestra.

The conductor led impressive accounts of three other vivid ballet scores — Copland’s “Billy the Kid,” Poulenc’s “Les Biches” and Satie’s “Parade” — that were expertly, inventively choreographed by Cirque de la Symphony. Aerialists took complex and elegant flights into the rafters, occasionally out over the audience. During the Satie work, there was a startling demonstration of slow-motion, seemingly impossible hand- (and foot-) balancing by the duo of Jarek and Darek. Vladimir Tsarkov’s colorful juggling was remarkably well-timed to the music.

All of these scores could have stood solidly on their own, of course. Poulenc's distinctive voice is delectably urbane and witty in "Les Biches," and Satie indulges in wonderfully audacious touches, including wacky additions to the percussion section. Copland's ballet seems as fresh as ever. Alsop was attentive to details large and small in each of the works, and the BSO's responded with vigor and clarity. 

There’s always a lot of talk about the need to break down barriers in classical music, to rethink concert the format and put a fresh spin on the experience. This imaginative concert actually did that, and with a panache that whets the appetite for what’s next under the BSO’s inviting tent.

The Cirque program repeats Friday and Sunday at Meyerhoff, Saturday at Strathmore.


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:15 PM | | Comments (6)


I must admit the opposite of what you expect: I thought that these concerts were among the _most_ interesting on this season's schedule. (If I weren't working, then I'd be going to one of the "Circus Maximus" concerts. Grumble-grumble.) If they were to do _more_ collaborative, multimedia shows such as this, then my interest would definitely be piqued.

(I don't think that they went overboard at all -- instead, this is the sort of "good stuff" in which Maestra Alsop seems to be at her strongest, and it definitely encourages a "meeting of worlds" without dumbing-down the experience. Yeah, the outfit's a little loud, but we _are_ talking about the circus, so maybe it needed some loud plaid, too! ;^)

Okay, you're right. I cringed when I first read about it.

But I did have a good reason: this was done years ago where I am located, and it was a huge flop. It wasn't because of the orchestra. It was about the "circus" folk. They were simply abominable ... not professional in any sense of the word, but kids who were taking circus classes.

I'm delighted to hear that the Baltimore event was much more successful. I'm all for inventive, new ideas! When they work.

Not that I have a lot of experience with circus acts (you couldn't pay me to go a real circus), but it sure looked to me like this troupe was very accomplished, even classy. Definitely not cheesy. And that made all the difference. TIM

I hate to admit this but last year I went with my husband. I thought the music was too "Pops-like". It was more the stereotypical music that was played for variety shows on TV or in other circus venues. As I recall Alsop was not the conductor. Sounds like the selection of music was more interesting this year.

I went with my two teenage daughters Friday night and we all had a great time. My husband I are going to next week's concert. It was great to see such a big crowd. The music was superb and the circus acts were thrilling.

I heard that it wasn't Alsop's choice to play the Bartok without circus acts, but a demand from Bartok's family. Seems a little stuffy to me, but I suppose if you own the rights, you own the rights. And as you say, it worked quite well without the circus performers.

No complaints from me - definitely a high point of the season.

To "a parent": the Bartók family's decision doesn't surprise me, and it's not really about "stuffiness." They still probably harbour very strong negative feelings about his treatment once he moved to this country; even though the music in question would work quite well with a bit of "acrobatic enhancement," the family may consider such a move to be another "slap" in Béla's face. This is a touchy subject, unfortunately!

I'm with Visit Baltimore, and we just did a video with Marin Alsop from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. In the video she tells us about her love for Baltimore and her hopes for the BSO. Check it out at

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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