As director of the University of South Carolina Symphony Orchestra, Donald Portnoy doesn’t just lead the music.
He’s also responsible for filling the seats, which means making sure that every performance has something extra, beyond just an evening of music for classical music enthusiasts.
“Orchestras nowadays have to create a lot of variety,” he says.
On April 1 at 7:30 p.m., the symphony’s Koger Center performance will be as much a matter of sight as sound, as the orchestra performs with Cirque de la Symphonie, an international group of acrobats, aerialists, contortionists, strongmen and magicians who will do all manner of juggling, twirling, flying, and swinging to the music of Wagner and Bizet, among others.
Portnoy was first introduced to Cirque de la Symphonie as conductor of the Augusta Symphony.
“It was so successful,” he says. “It’s something totally different.”
As the off-stage orchestra plays, Cirque de la Symphonie performs in synchronization with the music.
“The music really enforces what they’re doing,” he says. “There’s one piece where we play Ride of the Valkyries by Wagner, which is just so exciting, and that’s when they fly. The ride is really watching them fly. It’s really fabulous.”
The performers and gymnasts from Cirque — who hail from Russia, Mongolia and Moldova — will perform their acrobatic derring-do against music by Chabrier, Smetana, Leonard Bernstein and Rimsky-Korsakov, among others.
The performers know the music well in advance, Portnoy says, so all the orchestra has to do is just play it.
“They have worked out whatever they do to the music,” he says, “and we don’t have to synchronize that much.”
“They’ve been around for quite a long time,” Portnoy says. “They have played with almost every major orchestra. They played with Philadelphia, they played with Pittsburgh, many regional orchestras, and almost all their performances have been sold out.”
He’s hoping the same proves true for the Koger Center.
“I need the money to pay the bills,” he says.
Also, the music is familiar, which he hopes will make it attractive for people who don’t normally attend the symphony. Besides the whirling visuals, “they’re going to hear a lot of great music, and a lot of the music they’re going to say, ‘Gee, I heard that on TV,’ or ‘I heard that at the movies.’”
He is hoping, too, that this introduction to the symphony will make new converts.
Recent offerings from the USC Symphony Orchestra have included an evenings with Broadway music from Lerner and Lowe and Rodgers and Hammerstein. An evening of Cole Porter is on tap for next year, and Portnoy is hoping for an evening of Duke Ellington in the near future.
“I try to bring in a lot of world-class artists — those that are established, those that are a little bit younger, and have variety for the audiences,” he says. “I enjoy it, and I hope they enjoy it.”
There will also be a special Cirque de la Symphonie performance for schools groups and children with parents or chaperones at 10 a.m. on Tuesday morning.
Portnoy admits the special show, at a vastly reduced cost of $5, may be a bit of a financial risk.
“I figured, oh, what the heck, it’s going to cost a little more money — or a lot more money — but I think it’s worth it.”
“You go out on a limb for these things,” he says. “You just hope people will want to come to it.”
Cirque de la Symphonie will perform two shows with the USC Symphony Orchestra on Tuesday, April 1. Prices for the evening performance are $30 for the general public, $25 for USC faculty and staff and seniors, and $8 for students. Admission to the morning show is $5 for children and parents and chaperones. Call (803) 251-2222 or capitoltickets.com to order.
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