Music News & Reviews

Aerial acrobats pop in for Philharmonic picnic

Alexander Streltsov is a co-founder of Cirque de la Symphonie, which got its unofficial start in Cincinnati a dozen years ago.
Alexander Streltsov is a co-founder of Cirque de la Symphonie, which got its unofficial start in Cincinnati a dozen years ago.

Picnic With the Pops fans will have to look for the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra's annual outdoor concert in a new location this year, and they might not recognize it when they find it.

The late-summer event is moving to Keeneland because its usual venue, the Kentucky Horse Park, is being prepared for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. Going to a new place, the Picnic With the Pops Commission wanted a unique program, and music director Scott Terrell knew what to bring in.

Cirque de la Symphonie is a group based in Athens, Ga., that performs an acrobatic show in front of and above the orchestra as it plays. For instance, while the orchestra plays John Williams' Across the Stars from Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones, aerial artist Alexander Streltsov will be sailing through the night sky, creating a silky scene to illustrate the music.

The performance also will feature contortionists, jugglers and strongmen, and Terrell will even get in on the circus act, although he declined to say how.

The circus symphony act started in Cincinnati in 1998, when Cirque co-founder Streltsov met Erich Kunzel, the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra conductor, who died last year. The meeting resulted in pairing the aerial act with the Cincy Pops, and a concert film became a PBS hit.

There were a few more Cirque and orchestra performances before Cirque de la Symphonie officially formed in 2005. The show incorporates a variety of artists who live around the country and work or have worked with other groups including Cirque du Soleil and the Moscow Circus, at Sea World and in Britney Spears' video Circus.

"In their field, these are some of the top artists in the world," says Cirque de la Symphonie co-founder Bill Allen.

Cirque de la Symphonie stays busy: It has more than 52 performances booked in the coming year. It comes to Lexington after an engagement with the Philadelphia Orchestra, where Cirque received the same reaction it always gets, Allen says.

"People's jaws drop," he says. "Even the musicians, who have been playing for years, cannot believe what they are seeing."

For musicians, Terrell likens the experience to being the pit orchestra for an opera, musical or ballet.

"You have to avoid getting too involved in what's going on above you," Terrell says.

For the Cirque artists, every show is a new challenge because each performance venue is different. There are indoor theaters and arenas, and outdoor amphitheaters and open-air settings like Keeneland.

"They're basically having to build the stage from scratch," Streltsov says. "So we've been talking to them a lot about building it to fit with our specifications."

Allen says, "They need to build it to support weight, and where it's going to be distributed."

The orchestra and acrobats will have a fairly thorough rehearsal Friday night to make sure they are in synch and everything is ready to go. It is a bit more involved than just bringing in a guest instrumental soloist, but the payoff, organizers say, is a thrilling integration of live performance forms.

"We are definitely feeding off what the orchestra is playing," Streltsov says, and Allen adds, "The two art forms reinforce each other. It's a one-plus-one-equals-three situation."