The so-called "pops" concert is a unique beast within the classical music sphere. Most orchestras include them on their season—there are a few exceptions, but with good reason; Boston doesn't have any, but they also have the world-famous Pops orchestra—but the format can vary from season to season, or even concert to concert. Movie music, Broadway standards and even light classical is commonly found on the program.
There has been an emerging trend to include extra-musical concepts in the pops season; the Metroplex has already seen this recently in Fort Worth with their presentation of Gustav Holst's The Planets with pictures and rendering from NASA and presented "Cirque de la Symphonie" last season. The Dallas Symphony jumps into this ring with their partnership with Cirque Musica to present their latest offering in the 2011-'12 pops season.
The concert, which was reviewed Saturday on the second of a two-day run, featured a diminished orchestra (by count, roughly half the string section was missing) playing very familiar music—ranging from the first movement of Tchaikovsky's famous Violin Concerto to the movie stylings of John Williams. Most of the music was presented in an abridged format and many pieces were linked by new music composed by Marcelos Zarvos. The orchestra played with their normal brilliance, working as strong yet sensitive accompanist to the action onstage. The orchestra was led by conductor Jamie Schmidt. Schmidt worked as an efficient timekeeper for the group, with small, subdued gestures. He rarely moved out of his comfort zone of keeping time and cueing various sections, but kept the group together in concert with the stage action.
As for that stage action: the presentation was impressive. The acts were a standard representation of the Cirque model and presented in the same spirit. After a music "overture" the show began with performers Simon Arestov and Lyric Wallenda presenting a balancing act on a raised platform; the act was fun to watch but suffered slightly by having the audience so close (at the distance I was sitting, it gave away one of the secrets of how some of the balancing tricks were done). The highlight of the first half was aerial artist Anna Kaminnik performing a silk climbing routine; in addition to the challenging highwire-esque material, she managed to work in several costume changes while suspended over the stage. Also featured in the first half were acrobats Miles Hay and George Caronas who performed several high risk (and high reward) twists and turns, and juggler Jacob D'Eustachio who seemed to have a bit of an off-night but kept his humor throughout.
The second half opened with the return of Wallenda to the stage, this time to perform a solo aerial ring act. This was followed by funnyman (and show MC) Matt Roben performing a comic act/dance to a medley of Beatles tunes. Roben is, without a doubt the highlight of this troupe. In his duties as master of ceremonies, he kept things flowing with his humor and physicality. In his own routine, he presented the same humor, but also displayed a strong sense of grace and élan—in addition to entertaining the audience he showed a simple sincerity that drew the audience in.
Following Roben was Angelo Iodice who gave the show a Texas flair with his routine of trick rope and whip. This was the least visibly physical of the routines presented, but one that the audience audibly appreciated the most; while seeming to lack a visible physicality, the dexterity and concentration needed won the audience over completely.
Annaliese Nock was next on the program with a lyrical dance featuring lots of spandex, representing "the life of a flower." Following her was the final act of the evening, featuring violinist Kathleen Sloan and strongmen Adam Vazquez and Anton Makukhin. Musically, this was the only real down moment of the show; Sloan has an impressive résumé in the program, but that didn't translate into a strong performance on stage. The orchestra had difficulty following her in several spots; also, much of the multi-stop chords were crunched and produced a no real tone. The highlight of her performance (pun intended) was when she was raised above the strongmen on a high wire rig and performed the second half of the movement suspended above the stage. As for the strongmen themselves—the physicality onstage was most evident; many of the moves performed seemed almost physically impossible, yet were performed with fluidity.
While shows such as the one presented don't make sense on paper (or seen on the season brochure) because it seems to subjugate the orchestra (which is supposed to be the main draw). But the result is enjoyable and still manages to highlight the orchestra to a degree. The resulting amalgamation of the music and performers make programs such as these enjoyable for the whole family and cement their place among the new pops canon.