Five classical circus performers visited the Chicago Philharmonic this past Saturday night to ring in the orchestra’s new tenure at Harris Theater. The performances blended the music of Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky among others with the classical circus arts such as clowning, juggling and contortion. Along with displays of beauty and virtuosity, there were some elements of novelty and playfulness in this lyrical and physical event, such as the opening overture, the Superman song and introducing some newer circus disciplines like cyr wheel in to the mix.
The Harris theater is well suited to host the Chicago Philharmonic. Sun-Times journalist Wynne Delacoma once described the venue as “an astonishingly beautiful place to listen to music. Its acoustics cradle sound like a velvet-lined jewel box.”
There is something riveting about the mash up of the physical with the musical—especially when the physical is the aerial dance of an Olympic athlete, as Christine Van Loo floated above the stage on silks, accompanied by Camille Saint-Saens Danse Macabre to get the show started.
Bedecked in equally glittery costumes, Vladimir (as a clown) and Elena Tsarkov (as a debutante) brought a bit of excitement and comedy to the stage with a quick change act, astonishing the crowds as Elena went from ball gown, to flapper, to show girl in quick succession while Vladimir simply lifted and removed a curtain in so many seconds and Tico Tico No Fuba by Zequinha de Abreu kept the pace lively.
Alexander Streltsov impressed the audience by spinning a giant metal cube to The Toreadors from Carmen and Vladimir soon returned, breaking out of his clown role slightly to juggle rings in unique ways, bounce juggling and foot juggling as he went to Danse Boheme from Carmen and even involved the audience in his juggling act.
This was the Chicago Philharmonic’s first performance with Cirque de La Symphonie, and the circus troupe’s Chicago debut. It is part of a growing global trend in contemporary arts to collaborate with companies of other disciplines. Cirque de la Symphonie has proven that the collaboration of circus and music works especially well and has found a niche, touring the world, performing with orchestras at venues like the Sydney Opera House and the Kennedy Center.
The successive acts built in drama and energy, involving a soaring and dramatic straps routine by Vitalii Buza (who also impressed on the cyr wheel), a powerful contortion and hand balancing act by Elena Tsarkov and a beautiful and romantic finale performed as a silks duo by Alexander Streltsov and Chirstine Van Loo to Tchaikovsky. Perhaps most impressive by these five performers was the diversity in their skills, as they shifted from magic routines to juggling, and straps to contortion as if merely changing costumes. The acts themselves however were mainly traditional, and it would have been nice to see some contemporary expressions of circus with less pause for applause and more focus on narrative.
One lovely aspect to the evening was that the Chicago Philharmonic also performed four pieces without circus accompaniment that really showcased their range and the sublime conducting of Scott Speck. Perhaps the most impressive of these was Meditation from Thais by Jules Massenet that was played with moving virtuosity by violinist Robert Hanford.
The evening ended with Swan Lake (the silks duo), bows and a standing ovation before the seated audience was turned out in to the warm Saturday evening air to merge with the rowdy crowds in Millennium Park, and the five members of Cirque de la Symphonie moved on to their next engagement, always playing to a brand new crowd in a brand new town.