‘NSO Pops: Cirque de la Symphonie’ at The Kennedy Center by Justin Schneider

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One of my favorite things about attending shows at The Kennedy Center is how helpful the ushers are. In this case, they helped me pick my jaw up off the floor. Cirque de la Symphonie, the first offering of the NSO Pops’ 2013-14 Season, is an amazing combination of classical music and incredible cirque performances. The phrase I like to use in these cases is “two great tastes that taste great together,” and rarely is it as appropriate as it was last night. Get thee to The Kennedy Center, people.

Aloysia Gavre (Aerial Hoop). Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.
Aloysia Gavre (Aerial Hoop). Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

Cirque de la Symphonie, a traveling cirque troupe that has been working with symphonies around the country since 2006, made their Kennedy Center debut just last year. The troupe is already a hit, and I can’t imagine The Kennedy Center would be foolish enough to let another season go by without them. A night at the symphony – even a pops concert – is a night enmeshed in ritual. The orchestra members tune, the first chair enters to applause, the orchestra tunes as a group, the conductor enters to applause, and etc. Aside from occasional applause, the audience is largely silent. So it becomes an entirely different evening when Cirque de la Symphonie leads to audiences applauding throughout the performance, audibly gasping, laughing, and crying out in delight.

Conductor Steve Sian Richards.
Conductor Steven Reineke. Photo by Sian Richards.

Even conductor Steven Reineke had to turn and watch the performances! While Reineke was most likely checking for tempo, it was easy to imagine that he too was enrapt by the cirque performers. It helps that Reineke is a delight to watch on his own, making his conducting a full-body activity. There were a few points where I thought he might just dance his way off the conductor’s stand, and I don’t think it would have been out of place as part of the performance. He led a technically excellent night of music, but it’s his energy and personality that make it easy to see why he’s in such high demand as a pops conductor.

What to say about the actual performance? I promised myself that I wouldn’t gush, but that’s really what the program deserves. The musical selection was well chosen (and can be viewed online – Leonard Bernstein’s “Overture to Candide” is a particular favorite of mine), a mix of familiar and less well-known pieces that complemented the cirque acts throughout. And as good as the NSO might be, it was those acts which were the main attraction of the evening. Death-defying aerial acrobatics, dance, contortion, juggling, and other talents were all on display, and I don’t think there were more than a few seconds that went by without the audience spontaneously bursting out into applause.

The aerial acts (Christine Van Loo, Aloysia Gavre, Sagiv Bem Binyamin, and Alexander Streltsov) are particularly strong, and the finale featuring strongmen Jarek & Darek is nothing short of breathtaking. But I also feel the need to mention Ruslan Dmytruk’s juggling act. Accompanied by the Candide overture (and I already mentioned I love that piece), Dmytruk’s act is simple, technically amazing, and utterly charming. It also may be the best integrated performance of the evening, with Dmytruk adroitly shifting tempo and varying his act along with Bernstein’s composition. The fact that the audience laughed and applauded every time Dmytruk returned to the stage (even when he was just delivering props to another performer) shows that he made a strong impression.

It would take too long to praise each and every act, but rest assured that the entirety of Cirque de la Symphonie deserves it. If the purpose of the National Symphony Orchestra’s Pops Series is to expand their audience and demonstrate the continued relevance of the symphony, I can’t think of a better vehicle. I may be a convert myself, and I suddenly find myself eyeing the rest of their season. When a night at the symphony is also a night at the circus, it’s an evening that should appeal to everyone – young and old, fans of classical music, and otherwise.

Bruce Bilodeau (German Wheel). Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.
Bruce Bilodeau (German Wheel). Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

Running Time: One hour and forty-five minutes, with one fifteen minute intermission.

NSO Pops: Cirque de la Symphonie plays through September 22, 2013 at The Kennedy Center – 2700 F St. NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at 800-444-1324, or purchase them online.