RSO’s Rock Symphony Cirque Serves Up Extraordinary Evening

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"Jarek and Darek" perform their remarkable balancing act while the RSO cranks out an ultra smooth version of Kashmir and Janice Martin plays violin above.
"Jarek and Darek" perform their remarkable balancing act while the RSO cranks out an ultra smooth version of Kashmir and Janice Martin plays violin above.
"Jarek and Darek" perform their remarkable balancing act while the RSO cranks out an ultra smooth version of Kashmir and Janice Martin plays violin above.

Admittedly, I was not well-rested for last weekend’s Roanoke Symphony Orchestra performance. After mowing and planting and weeding and mulching and chopping and stacking and generally wiping myself out on a certain  Franklin County plot of land for the better part of the day, I was actually beginning to rue the idea of going at all.

What I needed was a shower, a glass of wine and a long deep back massage (necessarily in that order) – not taking five children, of all things, (three of mine and two imports) to a late evening show across town at the Salem Civic Center.

But the promise had long since been made and even though the mother of the three permanents (for whom the original ticket acquisition was made) had been called away on lacrosse tournament duty in Richmond, I persevered nevertheless.

Admission of Guilt #1

I had not been to a RSO performance in years – as in about sixteen – not so coincidently the age of my oldest child. The victim of the scheduling requirements foisted upon parents of my generation, the most culture I have witnessed in Roanoke outside of attending a few nice art shows and small music offerings, has been Sesame Street Live and the brass quintet featured at the 11:00 PM Christmas Eve Service.

Thus, I was originally excited about the opportunity to go – but now worn out to the point that I feared I might nod off in mid-performance. Would the house lights be down enough to hide such an indiscretion, I wondered? Would I break into an uproarious snore in an upright seated position?

I soon discovered that I shouldn’t have wasted the worry. The combination of RSO’s symphonic precision, the Cirque du Soleil style acrobatic performances and the accompanying Motown act provided by “Jeans and Classics” was an off-the-charts great experience. The result was an electrifying evening of entertainment – one that would have been met with rave reviews in any size market. The fact that it was conceived, coordinated and executed in Roanoke, was one more reminder that the conductor and top-drawer staff of the RSO deserve every bit of the praise they continually garner within and outside the valley.

Did I say sleep? I was on the edge of my seat from the moment Wiley and the gang struck up a strong, if not obligatory, opening allegro from Rossini’s William Tell Overture. The amplification could have been a little stronger, especially in several very up tempo pieces that came later in the evening, but the RSO’s creative vibrancy and clear attention to detail – a reflection of their intrepid conductor – was on full if not “high def” display.

Admission of Guilt #2

Circus acts are just not my thing. At least not typical circus acts involving a distant view of three rings in which trained animals are 90% of the offering. But, give me world class athletes and performers that are among the most accomplished veterans from the internationally acclaimed Cirque du Soleil, and I’m as mystified as the 10 year-old next to me who stared on in slack jawed wonder saying, “How did he do that? How did he do that . . .?” (And to think, it wasn’t happening on a video screen.)

How did they do that indeed – one performer played lead violin while swinging inverted upside down wrapped in long curtains of royal red cloth – others included “Jarek and Darek” who performed an “on ground” two body balancing routine that was one of the most astounding feats of strength, agility and balance I have seen live or otherwise. All this while the orchestra dished out a version of Led Zeplin’s classic “Kashmir” that would have made Jimmy Page and the boys proud to  have been in the room.

By the end of the third performance of combined music and physical artistry a real “chicken or the egg” question arose: Was the music “making” the extraordinary cirque performances? Or were the eloquent bodily expressions so informing the music that it was heard in a brighter, fresher and more inspirational way? The answer, of course, was both, and so all that was needed to round out the evening was a little . . .

Motown.

Admission of Guilt #3

I’m not much of a dancer.  But the Jeans and Classics group responsible for bringing the classic hits of Motown to life were dead on in their performances, and if you weren’t dancing on the main floor, you were at least bouncing a foot in the cheaper seats. (Me.) The lead vocalists didn’t just come close to bringing such artists as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross to life – they nailed their performances. And the band that joined the RSO in “groove support” laid down the classic beats with rifts and runs that often paralleled the originals to the point of a being nothing short of haunting.

You don’t just step up and “do” Marvin Gaye, and for that matter, any of the other classic Motown artists on display. This group had logged their hours and it showed, and when matched with Wiley’s creative, yet precisely constructed symphonic backup, the result was spectacular.

Perhaps the best testimony of the night came when I turned around in my seat to see how the children were enjoying the second set. To my surprise, they had all disappeared. Snacks? A Communal bathroom run, maybe? I scanned the floor as I turned back to direct my gaze towards the stage . . .  and there in the corner, so as not to be seen by her “way most un-cool” father, was my ever nonplussed and contrarian 15 year-old daughter, surrounded by the rest of the tribe, all dancing like there was no tomorrow – to music written well over a quarter century ago, performed by musicians my age and older.

Wiley – you just might be on to something.