BSO in the center ring

This weekend starts a month of programs that celebrate the world of the circus

March 05, 2010|By Tim Smith |

"As a kid, I always wanted to go to the circus," says Marin Alsop. "I was obsessed with the circus. Maybe that's why I became a conductor."

Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, gets to relive that obsession with a month of programs, starting this weekend, that celebrate the circus world in one way or another. Although given the marketing tag "BSO Under the Big Top," the venture isn't so much about clowns and acrobats as it is about following a connective thread.

"This really came out of the overall theme of our season, shared traditions and musical roots," Alsop says. "The circus is a tradition with such mass appeal. I wanted to explore how we can all relate to it. The circus emanates from at least the Roman days, which got me thinking about John Corigliano's 'Circus Maximus.' "

For that 2004 work, to be performed March 19-21, the BSO will be joined by members of the U.S. Army Band and University of Maryland Wind Orchestra. Many of the players will be positioned around the audience.

"What I love about circuses is the weirdness - things in the circus are so distorted and contracted - and the risk-taking, the colors," Alsop says. "I wanted to pick some pieces that are challenging for the orchestra and have their own risk-taking. The Corigliano piece is really shocking. It's definitely the loudest piece ever. The enormous rifle shot at the end could tear the place open."

Sharing that program will be Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf" (narrated at some performances by NPR's Scott Simon). "It's got the kind of story where you're walking a line between being frightened and being intrigued," Alsop says. Also on tap is David T. Little's "Screamer" - "It's only a five-minute piece, but wild," Alsop adds. "It's been called a 'three-ring blur for orchestra.' "

The BSO's big-top adventure kicks off this weekend with a kind of Las Vegas-meets-the-circus SuperPops program called "Mysterioso." It features magicians Les Arnold and Dazzle, illusionist Joseph Gabriel and quick-change artists David & Dania. BSO pops conductor Jack Everly will be at the podium.

"Mysterioso" was developed in late 2008 at the Indianapolis Symphony, where Everly is also pops conductor.

"We did research for a couple of years to find the right mix of performers and music that alludes to illusion and magic," Everly says. "Les Arnold and Dazzle is a father-and-daughter team, and one of the funniest magical acts I've ever seen. We've also got a wonderful singer, Christina Bianco. It's quite a whimsical program, pure entertainment, with first-rate arrangements. The BSO cleverly thought they would put it under the umbrella of the circus project."

Next week, Alsop and the BSO will be joined by the Cirque de la Symphonie ensemble, which will add an aerial dimension. The musical lineup includes colorful ballet scores by Aaron Copland, Francis Poulenc, Erik Satie and Bela Bartok.

"The Cirque performers are not just going to be dangling through the whole program," Alsop says, "but it's all integrated into one big concept."

The final installment, March 25-28, works the puppet world into the picture, via another ballet score, Igor Stravinsky's "Pulcinella," which tells a commedia dell'arte tale that "can be kind of frightening," Alsop says.

The conductor is rounding out that program with a couple of rarely heard short operas. In Samuel Barber's "A Hand of Bridge," two couples playing cards are absorbed in private thoughts. George Gershwin's "Blue Monday," a precursor of sorts to "Porgy and Bess," deals with dice-rolling, love and jealousy.

Those operas, which will feature members of Washington National Opera's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, may not seem as readily connected to the overriding circus concept, but Alsop finds the game-playing in each close enough.

"I'm at the point where I can't stretch this theme farther," she says, adding with a laugh, "and it's probably reached that point already."

If you go
The "BSO Under the Big Top" festival begins with the BSO SuperPops at 8 p.m. today and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. The series continues with programs March 11-14, March 19-21, and March 25-28. For tickets, call 410-783-8000 or go to

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