George Zack knows how to take the stage, how to usher in soloists, how to conduct the great masterworks of composers like Brahms and Tchaikovsky and how to take a bow.
But bowing out?
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"I've never had a final anything," the Lexington Philharmonic director said earlier this week, as he began rehearsals for what would indeed be his final concert conducting the orchestra.
In the 21 months since Zack announced he would step down from the podium he first ascended in 1972, the conductor has ticked off a list of finals.
Final concert with his beloved Lexington Singers.
But last night was indeed Zack's grand finale, conducting the orchestra one last time on a day Mayor Jim Newberry declared Dr. George Zack Day in Lexington.
"I am honored beyond words to participate in this very special event in the life of our community," Newberry said, making the proclamation. "No one has had more of an impact on our artistic community in the past 37 years than Dr. George Zack."
It was a sentiment shared by many who came to the Singletary Center for the Arts Friday night for Zack's swan song.
"There's Lexington arts pre-Z and post-Z," said Everett McCorvey, director of the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre.
Referring to Zack's tenure and notoriety, UK Symphony director John Nardolillo said Zack was the Leonard Bernstein or Arturo Toscanini of Lexingon.
"He really brought an excitement and a personal relationship between the Philharmonic and the community," said longtime Philharmonic patron Emery Wilson. "I feel like he's created a larger audience for music in Lexington."
State Rep. Ruth Ann Palumbo said, "He loves Lexington and he loves this arts community. He will take on new roles in the community."
Indeed Zack does plan to remain in Lexington and will actually retain the title of music director with the Philharmonic until his successor is named next spring. The search for a new music director started last fall with a series of five guest conductors and will continue this coming season with five more from October through March. The successor will be announced in April.
But last night was Zack's night, and his daughter Kate Bender said one of the wonderful things about the grand finale was that her dad was getting to hear the outpouring of gratitude from fans and colleagues.
"He doesn't know all of the things he's done for this community," she said. "He's had a fulfilling life and loves having so many friends and memories."
The evening's tributes included a surprise performance of Aaron Copland's Ceremonial Fanfare following the intermission and after that, he was presented with a copy of the score, signed by the composer in 1977. After the concert, Zack was feted with a party on the lawn of the Singletary Center where party chair Emily Ashburn said he would be presented with a bronze cast of himself that will be displayed in the Singletary Center.
As for the concert itself, Zack loaded it with symbolism, bringing back longtime friend Aaron Rosand, who was a violin soloist in Zack's first season, to play Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35, and ending with Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68, which was the first piece Zack conducted with the Phil.
He started that last symphony conducting with his eyes closed, seeming to float on lilting woodwinds. But by the fourth movement, he was bringing the symphony to a close, pumping his arms for the final chord.
When Zack came off the stage, Philharmonic executive director Peter Kucirko handed him a bottle of water. Zack took a swig and said, "Don't ever let me conduct that again."
That will probably take some getting used to.