Admit it. The first time you heard about the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's "Under the Big Top" series of circus-theme concerts, your cynical muscles started clenching. And when you spotted publicity photos of music director Marin Alsop in a ringmaster's get-up (what were they thinking over there?), you just knew the whole thing had to be too darn silly.
Well, relax and get over it. This project could turn out to be the sleeper hit - and hoot - of the season.
Thursday's concert, featuring the brilliant flying, juggling, contorting troupe called Cirque de la Symphonie, might have settled for mere gimmickry, from the smell of popcorn and sight of cotton candy in the lobby to the stage decked out with streaming fabrics behind the orchestra and bathed in show-biz lighting. But Alsop constructed too substantive a program to be mistaken for a pops night out, and she made sure that the music registered with terrific impact, even when the cirque folk had the limelight.
It was cool to hear collective "oohs" and "ahs" rise from the crowd at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall - people really did get into the circus mood - and also to hear shouts of approval for such a thorny score as the Suite from Bartok's ballet "The Miraculous Mandarin." That piece was wisely delivered without any visual extras, but the rhythmic thrusts and melodic leaps in the music created their own kind of dazzle.
The conductor led impressive accounts of three other vivid ballet scores - Copland's "Billy the Kid," Poulenc's "Les Biches" and Satie's "Parade" - that were expertly choreographed by Cirque de la Symphonie. During the Satie work, there was a startling demonstration of slow-motion, seemingly impossible hand- (and foot-) balancing by the duo of Jarek and Darek.
There's a lot of talk about breaking down barriers in classical music. This imaginative venture actually did that, and with a panache that whets the appetite for what's next under the BSO's inviting tent.
The BSO and Cirque de la Symphonie perform at 8 tonight at the Music Center at Strathmore, 3 p.m. Sunday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Call 410-783-8000 or go to bsomusic.org.