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Cirque de la Symphonie and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, March 11

March 13, 2010
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One totally hairless gold man is supporting another hairless gold man entirely with his neck. No joke: Atop a platform placed front and center on the Meyerhoff stage, two male acrobats clad in goldish trunks and tinted with golden body paint, slowly move through a series of poses that this writer couldn’t pull off after about 1,000 hours of Bikram yoga and 10,000 crunches. One man moves into a one-hand stand, his supporting palm spread across the other man’s head. One man moves from a hand press into a pike handstand and on to a full handstand and back again with his hands locked around the other man’s feet. And numerous times they contort the body into positions the human skeleton doesn’t appear to want to move into without a great deal of muscular control, extreme flexibility, and focused concentration. The spine cracks just thinking about it.

Behind them, maestra Marin Alsop led the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra through a movement of Erik Satie’s Parade, a percussively eccentric 1919 ballet. Throughout the evening, the BSO backed the acrobatic performers of Cirque de la Symphony, a traveling troupe that performs in music halls, typically accompanied by pops programming. It stopped in Baltimore last year, but this year’s series is the first time it is performing to a classical repertoire, which doesn’t have the breaks between songs that the Cirque’s choreography would normally incorporate.

Fortunately, Alsop chose sections from three ballets to accompany the performers, essentially casting the acrobats, contortionists, a juggler, and aerialists as performers in movement theater. And it made for an exquisitely lovely combination: Watching a man and woman scurrying up a bright red aerial silk a good 20 feet above the BSO stage to a suite from Francis Poulenc’s Les Biches offered captivating visuals to go along with the sprightly music. Later, Cirque performed a lover’s triangle between a pair of men and a woman, including choreography with an aerial hoop, to a suite from Aaron Copland’s Billy the Kid, and the pairing of Copland’s evocation of America’s wide-open spaces and the push and pull of romantic movement made for a beguiling combo. This performance included more flabbergasting displays of corporeal feats. At one point the woman arched into a back bend, and one of the men pressed himself into a handstand—with his hands resting on her hips.

If there was any drawback to this setup is that the Cirque performers are so eye-catching that you don’t pay as much attention to the music. And the only reason that’s a shame is that, on Thursday night at least, Alsop and the BSO sounded nimble, responsive, passionately on point, and its performers looked like they were having a blast. To borrow some blunt praise from rockwriting, the BSO was fucking killing it.

This attitude was best witnessed during the performance of the lone piece that didn’t include Cirque accompaniment. Alsop introduced Bála Bartok’s suite from The Miraculous Mandarin, Op. 19, with a colorful synopsis of its garish tale: A honey-pot woman lures men up to a room where three goons plan to beat and fleece the poor saps, but her first three marks turn out to be penniless. Along comes the Mandarin, who gets coaxed upstairs and falls under the woman’s spell, chasing her about before the goons retaliate, suffocating him, stabbing him, and finally stringing him up by the neck. It’s the story you’d expect to find between the covers of a Gold Medal Book with a fabulously lurid cover.

Bartok’s music is equally frenetic, and the BSO tackled this lurching, anxious, and frenetic suite with taut competence. Parts of it are frantically paced, with the strings’ bows spiking up and down in the air like fixed bayonets during a charge, but the score also opens up into places of disarming graciousness and beauty. It’s music that runs through more emotional mood swings than Idi Amin, and the BSO delivered it with a feverish, controlled competence that stirred the pulse and charged the mind.

The BSO and Cirque de la Symphonie runs through March 14 at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

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