Symphony in a dream

Cirque de la Symphonie adds visuals to orchestral performance

Peter Alexander | Boulder Weekly

Everyone loves a circus. Even at the symphony — in the temple of high culture?

Well, yes. It turns out that one of the hottest attractions on the orchestral circuit these days is not the latest violin prodigy or Russian piano phenom, but Cirque de la Symphonie, a troupe of aerial flyers, acrobats, contortionists, dancers, jugglers, balancers and strongmen who, in their own words, “bring the magic of cirque to the music hall.”

On. Oct. 29, the music hall in question will be Macky Auditorium as the Boulder Philharmonic presents a program of music for Halloween and other popular orchestral showpieces. About two-thirds of the pieces will be accompanied by Cirque de la Symphonie performers.

Music on the program will include such scary-season favorites as Saint-Sa%uFFFDns’ “Danse macabre” and Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bare Mountain,” performed by orchestra alone, as will be Borodin’s “Polovtsian Dances.” With the cirque performers, the orchestra will play music from Bizet’s “Carmen,” Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Snow Maiden,” as well as Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance” and the Bacchanale from Saint-Sa%uFFFDns’ “Samson et Delilah.”

Adding acrobats, jugglers and aerial performers to such an appealing program turns a concert into a live version of Walt Disney’s classic 1940 animated film Fantasia. Considering that Fantasia made many standard classical pieces — Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite,” Dukas’ ”Sorcerer’s Apprentice” — widely popular, you have to wonder: Why did it take orchestras so long to think of doing this live?

In fact, it took the combination of an American producer, a Russian aerialist and a visionary pops conductor to bring the ingredients of Cirque de la Symphonie together.

Producer William Allen has represented Russian cirque performers in the United States for many years.

“I’m not going to take credit for everything here,” Allen says, “but I’ve always thought from when I was first in Moscow and saw a lot of cirque artists performing and I was listening to some classical music … that’s the kind of music this art form [cirque] was meant to go with.”

Allen says the real “aha” moment came in 1997, when Eric Kunzel, director of Cincinnati Pops, saw aerialist Alexander Streltsov in a cirque performance Allen had produced. Kunzel came backstage afterwards and said he’d like to have Streltsov perform at a Cincinnati Pops concert.

“It was so well received that they showed it [on television] for five years,” Allen says. “We went on to do other collaborations. … An artistic director finally asked me, why don’t you offer this formally, because all the orchestras would love to have something like this as part of a pops series or subscription series. And so that’s when Alexander and I decided that we would go ahead and incorporate, trademark the name and offer the program to orchestras.”

That happened in 2005. Since then, Cirque de la Symphonie has appeared with more than 75 orchestras in the U.S., Mexico
and Canada, ranging from small orchestras to some of the country’s major
symphonies. Future bookings extend through 2013 and include the Boston
Pops and return engagements with the Atlanta and Seattle symphonies.

With so many dates, Allen and Streltsov describe their touring schedule as “brutal.” After finishing the performance in Boulder, the company will take a 1 a.m. red-eye flight to Rhode Island for a performance on Saturday night.

Interestingly, music critics — not usually a kindly sort — seem to like what Cirque de la Symphonie brings to performances. In Pittsburgh, Mark Kanny wrote, “The only question after Thursday evening’s sold-out Pittsburgh Symphony Pops presentation of ‘Cirque de la Symphonie’ is: How soon will the musically adept circus act return to Heinz Hall?” And in Baltimore, Tim Smith noted, “There’s always a lot of talk about the need to break down barriers in classical music, to rethink the concert 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.”

Michael Butterman, music director of the Boulder Philharmonic, agrees.

“Cirque is a brilliant synthesis of sight and sound,” he says. “What I like about it is that the orchestra plays great staples of the classical music literature, pieces that are really written well for the orchestra and that people will recognize, and yet at the same time you’ve got this added element [with] these visuals going on. It’s great for young people especially, but at the same time the music that we’re playing is really substantial, serious stuff.”

So step right up! Come one, come all! The circus is coming to Macky Auditorium.

On the Bill

Cirque de la Symphonie plays Macky Auditorium on Friday, Oct. 29. Show starts at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets start at $15. Call 303-449-1343, ext 2., or visit


Correction: The correct phone number for the Boulder Philharmonic is now listed.