On Monday, Gustavo Dudamel will conduct the Vienna Philharmonic in Danville, Ky., a town of 18,000 right in the middle of thoroughbred country. Earlier in the day, the Venezuelan maestro be given the title of Kentucky Colonel.
The story of how this hard-to-imagine event in Bluegrass Country came about is difficult to unravel partly because it’s been a long time in the making but also because everyone we interviewed had a rather annoying habit of giving the credit to someone else.
Thirty-seven years ago, Centre College, a private liberal arts college old enough for its name to be spelled the British way, built a top-tier concert hall designed by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation — not to accommodate the school’s orchestra (Centre only has 1,250 students) but to create a place where the top acts in all genres could perform for students and the small community.
Classical music aficionado George Foreman was managing director of the college’s Norton Center for the Arts from 1983 to 2009 and under his watch A-list acts became the norm.
“At some point I envisioned a goal of bringing the top five American orchestras to that little town. It seemed like a noble goal. And a crazy goal. We did fairly well at it over the course of the years.”
Fairly well in Centrespeak means the Kirov, Gewandhaus, Royal Philharmonic, Paris, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York and Israeli orchestras as well as Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Twyla Tharp, Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman. Last Friday Frankie Valli was in town and soon after the Vienna orchestra plays, Smokey Robinson will take the stage.
Foreman had Vienna on his mind for more than 10 years, but it was never the right time. Then, in 2008, Kentucky was awarded the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, the first time the competition has been held outside of Europe.
The title sponsor, local animal health company giant Alltech, decided that there should be a program of entertainment as a nighttime complement to the daily events.
“It’s got to be more than horses,” said Alltech founder and President Pearse Lyons. “The idea was to take that right across the state and we would have the Temptations, the Beach Boys and Wynonna Judd all the way up to opera. And if we’re going to go opera, why not tie with Centre College and so we went out to find the best of the best and then we got to the Vienna Philharmonic.”
The center’s director of programs and public relations, Debra Hoskins, was consulting for Alltech, so it was up to her to take the next steps.
Hoskins doesn’t take no for an answer and after initial inquiries were rebuffed by the Vienna Philharmonic’s North American agent CAMI, she turned Google ninja and found contact information for the orchestra’s tour manager.
The Vienna Philharmonic didn’t return a request for comment but it appears that the engagement was secured on the back of the World Equestrian Games, the college’s prior experience with big orchestras and some good old-fashioned greasing of the wheels.
“E-mail is one thing,” Hoskins said, “but when they hear an accent from Kentucky, particularly one as thick as mine is, come across the telephone, they were probably thinking ‘Lord have mercy. Where are we going to?’ I was sending them Kentucky bourbon and chocolates. I just wanted them to know the flavor of Kentucky and the hospitable nature that we have here.”
When it came time to choose the conductor, the Vienna orchestra staff suggested Dudamel since he would also be leading the orchestra in their upcoming Carnegie Hall dates before beginning his second season as music director of the L.A. Philharmonic.
“I had just watched the PBS special on Dudamel and we were so excited that he is coming,” Hoskins said.
Securing one of the world’s best orchestras and hottest conductors would be enough for most people. By now you should be able to guess where this is going.
“I got the bright idea, you know,” she continued. “Dudamel is coming and the VPO is coming, we should have Princess Haya [of Jordan], the president of the [International Equestrian Federation], come to the concert.”
Kentucky bourbon was once again called in to service on behalf of its people. “I’ll never forget the day I got the Fed-Ex package,” Hoskins said. “It was Dec. 14, right near Christmas. I opened it up and I saw her royal seal on the letter saying she’d be so happy to accept our invitation. I’m surprised you didn’t hear me squeal [in Los Angeles] when I got that!”
Class schedules at Centre have been rearranged to allow students to attend the Monday dress rehearsal, and the orchestra’s only American member, trombonist Jeremy Wilson from Tennessee, will be giving a master class. To enhance the educational experience even further, a special convocation was held on Thursday night devoted entirely to “Vienna and the Dude.” (The poster is pictured above.)
The college is viewing this as a mini-cultural exchange and is determined to show their visitors the best of their state. When they arrive Sunday, Dudamel and the orchestra will be taken to several neighboring horse farms for a Kentucky wine tasting and a full Pride of Kentucky dinner (all products come from the Bluegrass State). Sometime during their visit Vienna and the Dude will be made Kentucky Colonels — the state’s highest honor. Word is a Colonel Sanders impersonator has been engaged.
While people at the Centre were coy about the exact cost of the event, they confirmed that it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that Alltech and the six community sponsors had to come up with a sum somewhere between $500,000 and $750,000 — more than double the normal cost of hosting a big American orchestra.
As is usual at the Norton Center, a good proportion of the students will be involved as ushers, valets and other jobs that are essential for an event to run smoothly. “There’s just been so much build-up.” says financial economics major and house manager Sahar Haque. “Everyone is on the edge of their seats.”
While everyone interviewed at Centre was almost giddy with excitement, there was still a sense of this sort of event being just one more in a long line of successes for a college that consistently punches above its weight. “This is a place of disproportion,” said Centre President John Roush. “It tends to do the unexpected with some measure of frequency, so it doesn’t seem unexpected.
The nagging question about this was always: Why? Surely students can just watch the DVD like everyone else in small-town America. For Roush and others at Centre, the reason is clear. “When you give a student an opportunity to be around greatness then they can imagine that they too might be able to do great things. The most important impact is that our people from Centre College believe that anything is possible”
First published in the Los Angeles Times