Settling into my seat at Meymandi Concert Hall in downtown Raleigh, I overheard the well-dressed, thirty-something couple next to me making comments like "what a beautiful hall" and "why haven't we been here before?" Comments like this would most likely warm the hearts of everyone associated with the North Carolina Symphony organization as this is precisely the response they want to their creative concerts, exemplified by this program. Joining our state's orchestra for an evening of holiday favorites is the relatively newly formed Cirque de la Symphonie, an offshoot of the Cirque franchises that have thrilled and dazzled audiences throughout the world. Leading the orchestra was William Henry Curry, Resident Conductor and apprentice illusionist – more on that later!
When I read about this program, where the audience would "watch in awe as aerialists fly overhead and breathtaking, gravity-defying feats are performed," it was hard to imagine this taking place in Meymandi. The setup consisted of the orchestra pushed as far back as possible, and a steel scaffolding high above the front of the stage where the aerialists would be suspended. While there were a few moments where the performers flew above the audience, most of the action was confined to above the stage, enough so that the attorneys could breathe easily.
The opener was a rather unexceptional arrangement, by the wonderfully named Carmen Dragon, of "Deck the Halls." Speaking of Carmens, next up was the Brazilian choro classic "Tico Tico" made famous by Carmen Miranda. Out came a Pierrot figure complete with white painted Mime face and for a brief moment my thought was, "please don't let this be an evening of pantomime." That was quickly dispelled as a woman came out and together they proceeded to do those amazing acts where entire outfits would be changed in seconds while behind a small curtain. This was only the beginning of a widely diverse series of acts that to describe as simply "astounding" would be grossly inadequate.
The first aerial performance was next as a long purple sash was hooked onto the overhead beam and a woman came out and performed a series of climbs and phenomenal acrobatic moves. (Note: names of the performers were not available, either as inserts in the program or on any websites.) The Pierrot character came out and showed that he was not just another pretty, painted face in a clown suit. Accompanied by a loop of Leroy Anderson's biggest hit, "Sleigh Ride," we were dazzled by a demonstration of juggling with as many as six large rings. The juggling got even more bizarre as a very large man used the frame of an enormous steel cube as his prop, while the band played the "Tarantella" from La Boutique Fantasque by Ottorino Respighi. We then had a break from the seemingly impossible physical feats to sit back and enjoy a well-played "Troika" from Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kijé. The first half ended with a beautifully controlled solo by a graceful female on two high stools followed by a powerfully built male gymnast performing a high wire act that had the audience gasping.
During the first half Maestro Curry provided his usual excellent leadership of the orchestra but remained unobtrusive and let the music and performers "speak" for themselves. That all changed at the start of the second half as Curry, being an incredibly good sport, became part of a magic act. I wonder if he had to take a sworn oath to not reveal the secret behind the trick!
There was some more juggling, an acrobat in a ring of steel, some nicely played excerpts from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, both in its original and also a selection from the Duke Ellington arrangement. Every act had the audience riveted to these human beings doing things which we were actually seeing but didn't seem possible. As great as these all were, the entire evening led up to a performance which transcended "I can't believe it" and resulted in anyone observing this to simply not trust their senses.
As an added bonus, there was an interesting musical creation. "Little Bolero Boy," by Robert Wendel, is basically Maurice Ravel's "Bolero" with "The Little Drummer Boy" as the main tune. Go ahead and compare the original tune from "Bolero" and that Christmas favorite and you'd be surprised at the similarity. Well, the orchestra could have been playing a C major scale for 10 minutes after two men, in faint bronze paint to appear statue-like, came out and performed feats of balance and strength that now seem like an apparition. Moving at a phenomenally slow pace, one man balanced himself with just one hand on the head of the other, they made poses at angles that human muscles were not made to endure, and they actually appeared – as intended – as statues unencumbered by human limitations. Members of the audience rose to their feet at the conclusion. The man-woman high wire act on another set of sashes hooked to the scaffold was quite spectacular and a great finisher, but those two "statue men" will leave an indelible print in my brain. If just for that one act, go see this exciting show.
For details of two repeat performances on December 21, see the sidebar.