BSO takes a new approach to the holidays

Holiday Cirque de la Symphonie comes to the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

A bevy of Santas will not tap-dance their way into Rockette-style formations onstage to help the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra celebrate the Christmas season this year.

That cute tradition, and the rest of the Holiday Spectacular presented by the BSO since 2005, is on a hiatus prompted by a decline in ticket sales and audience surveys reflecting a desire for a change.

That change arrives this week with Holiday Cirque de la Symphonie. Aerialists, contortionists, jugglers, hula-hoopsters and a couple of strongmen will be deployed to the strains of "O Holy Night," "Sleigh Ride" and more.

"We've been getting feedback from Holiday Spectacular audiences that they looked forward to a change," said BSO president and CEO Paul Meecham. "And attendance wasn't as high in the past few years. Only one in three people were coming back every year. We decided to give it a rest. We're just trying to keep things fresh for our audiences."

The switch to Cirque de la Symphonie seems to be doing the trick. Except for a couple of weekday matinees, ticket availability is already tight, Meecham said.

"We're conscious that people in Baltimore take their holiday programs very seriously," said Bill Allen, co-founder, executive director and producer of Cirque de la Symphonie. "It's exciting and a bit risky when you introduce something new. But this one is fairly unique, the biggest production we've ever put on for a holiday program."

The 5-year-old Cirque de la Symphony has performed with the BSO on three other occasions, including a memorable circus-theme program in 2010 that found music director Marin Alsop conducting ballet scores by Aaron Copland and others as all sorts of ooh-and-ah activity unfolded on and above the stage.

For this return engagement, count on the same sort of highly physical choreography, with at least a hint of seasonal flavor.

"We will have some decorations and some costuming more oriented to a holiday presentation," Allen said. "Our strongmen will be in Christmas gold, and not much else — actually, we have discussed pulling back on the skimpiest attire in the show. But we never try to disguise our artists behind heavy, gaudy costuming."

Cirque de la Symphonie never disguises the "symphonie" part of its mission, either.

"We stick to our original quest to raise cirque to a fine-arts level," Allen said. "We think we've achieved that. There is a sense of elegance to the program. Some people ask us to put the orchestra in a pit, but we say no. We're not here just to have them play along with us. It's a true fusion of two art forms. We have turned down a lot of things that go beyond our genre, things like birthday parties for billionaires."

Not long ago, the idea of putting anything remotely circus-y together with a traditional symphonic organization might have been viewed as heretical, except for pops programs. But in the age of dwindling, aging audiences, orchestras are eager to try a fresh hook. Cirque de la Symphonie provides it.

Alexander Streltsov is one of the primary forces behind the company. The Russian-born aerialist, who made his Broadway debut in Valentin Gneushev's "Moscow Circus" when he was 12, went on to enjoy a busy international career.

In this country, Streltsov earned attention for his participation in such high-profile projects as the 1998 ABC-TV special "Christopher Reeve — A Celebration of Hope." That same year, he made his debut as a soloist with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra and went on to perform with that group several times, including nationwide Fourth of July broadcasts on PBS.

That association proved fortuitous. Erich Kunzel, conductor of the Cincinnati Pops, suggested that Streltsov develop a group of cirque artists to perform with orchestras. The result was Cirque de la Symphonie, which had a successful launch with the Houston Symphony Orchestra in 2005.

More and more ensembles began to book the company. Re-engagements are common; enthusiastic reviews are, too. This season alone, Cirque de la Symphony is collaborating with more than 60 orchestras. The troupe has a roster of well-seasoned artists.

"There is a great amount of very skillful cirque performers," Streltsov said, "but the interesting part is that some are not capable of performing onstage with a live orchestra. What we look for is not just athletic skills, but an ability to perform to classical music. A lot of them are not capable of doing that. You have to be musically wired and be talented in choreography."

Part of the choreographic talent required is the ability to work within tight spatial parameters. A typical cirque show takes advantage of a large performance area where flights of aerialist fancy can soar in any direction, where jugglers have plenty of elbow room and contortionists are free to contort.

"We only have 12 to 15 feet of space," Streltsov said. "For the most part, concert halls are not built for aerial entertainment. But our performers are very confident of what they can do in a limited space."

Although Cirque de la Symphonie normally sends only one or two artists out at a time during a show, that still means that a lot of physical activity is going on right alongside and dangling above a bunch of classical musicians who typically don't find themselves in anyone's line of fire.

"A violinist with a $500,000 violin can get a bit nervous," Allen said with a laugh. "But I can honestly say that [safety] has never been an issue."

Cirque de la Symphonie's holiday show will highlight the work of such artists as aerialist Aloysia Gavre, a former Cirque du Soleil member; Christine Van Loo, who choreographed aerial acts for Britney Spears' tour; and mime/juggler Vladimir Tsarkov, a product of the State College of Circus and Theater Arts in Russia.

In addition to the Christmas chestnuts (and a Hanukkah suite), music on the program will underline the classical side of Cirque de la Symphonie with such items as Rimsky-Korsakov's "Capriccio Espagnol" and even Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries."

Holiday and classical will collide in a mash-up of Ravel's "Bolero" and "Little Drummer Boy," featuring the Polish hand-balancing team of Jarek and Darek. "Jaws will drop," Allen predicted.

He is likewise upbeat about what Streltsov and Van Loo will be doing overhead as the BSO plays the "Waltz of the Flowers" from Tchaikovsky's most popular ballet.

"You'll never think of 'The Nutcracker' the same way again," Allen said.

If you go

Holiday Cirque de la Symphonie will be performed 2 p.m. Wednesday, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Dec. 11 at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.; 8 p.m. Thursday at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Tickets are $17.50 to $88. Call 410-783-8000 or go to