With the official season at a close, the San Francisco Symphony’s “Summer and the Symphony” is well underway with a collection of concerts designed to attract and welcome all audiences. Friday night’s offering was a collaboration with circus troupe Cirque Musica, partnering classical and popular repertoire with a variety of dazzling cirque acts. Never before have I witnessed a concert in which the violin soloist performs the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto suspended in mid-air above the stage, or where giant, bouncy balloons are launched into the crowd, much to the glee of children and adults alike.

Cirque Musica
Cirque Musica

While I was taking my seat and scanning the rest of Davies Hall, there was excitement in the air, and I noticed an encouraging mix of regular concertgoers, families and children. As is customary, the orchestra were already on stage preparing. Quite why I expected something different, I’m not sure, but mental images of the Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik entering on a unicycle were not entirely off the mark, as the lights dimmed and a clown came hurtling down the center aisle on a bicycle to greet his comrades on stage. How might these two seemingly differing worlds interact tonight?

The proceedings started with a remarkable act by Rolla Bolla artist Simon Arestov performing to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee (from Tsar Saltan). I was impressed by the choreography: the high points of the act were remarkably well timed with those of the music. Considering he was atop a high stand, balancing precariously on a whole host of cylindrical items, it was a commendable feat for him to be paying such attention to the geography of the music as well.

The following act demonstrated the unbelievable dexterity and upper body strength of Christopher Phi, who clambered in and around a small, restrictive cage suspended above the stage. In similar fashion to his previous comrade, he showed sensitivity towards the music: Night on Bare Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky. What I was beginning to realize was that the music was by no means overshadowed by the visual feats taking place before us and in actual fact, I began noticing more nuances in the music than in previous performances of these familiar works.

After a fun and energetic hoop act by Chiara, accompanied by a buoyant and wistful bassoon solo by Stephen Paulson in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas, the first half was closed by an extraordinary slackline act by Evgeny Vasilenko. Conductor Sarah Hicks, unassuming up until this point, came alive to lead a powerful performance of “Mars” from Gustav Holst’s The Planets. Not only was this act of the highest quality, demonstrating a strength that appeared to defy the laws of physics, but the music was once again a shrewd choice to partner this. The audience were clearly on the edge of their seats, wishing the artists the best but nervously anticipating a fall from grace (which naturally, never came). The dark, ominous sounds from this particular work heightened the experience and emotions of the audience, once again demonstrating the great effect of combining live music and cirque acts.

With the July 4 Independence Day celebrations only a few days prior, it was suitable that Aaron Copland’s “Hoedown” from Rodeo featured on this program. And in true American fashion, a fully decked cowboy came out to perform a sequence of mesmerizing lasso tricks and humorous whip cracks. The orchestra were in high spirits here and led an extremely joyful performance, full of light humour and jest. The zaniness was in full swing for the remainder of the concert, which culminated with the aforementioned giant balloons being launched out into the audience, giving everyone license to forget their age as they were bounced back and forth the hall.

The musical highlight of the evening was undoubtedly the performance of the Allegro moderato from Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major, which was performed by soloist Kathleen Sloan. Her playing was spirited and strong and despite being miked for what was soon to follow, she also demonstrated her deftness and delicacy, which subdued the raucous audience. Prior to the cadenza, she was unexpectedly attached to wires and hoisted high above the stage to conclude the piece. Whilst it can certainly be no easy task to concentrate on such an unforgiving slew of passagework suspended in mid-air above the orchestra, she still managed to perform with dazzling clarity. I couldn‘t tell if her eyes were closed because it helped her memory skills or because she was terrified of looking down. Throughout the remainder of the concerto, Christopher Phi once again demonstrated his super-strength abilities with an impressively strong yet sensual hand-balancing act, twisting, turning and contorting with equal sensitivity to the music.

The evening was thoroughly entertaining and a wonderful way to bring the exceptional artistry of two differing performing arts together. There was an obvious relaxation and enjoyment from the crowd, and tonight demonstrated one way to fulfil what every symphony orchestra’s motto should be, as stated in tonight’s program book: “Music is for everyone.”