The University of Kentucky's leaders have aspired for years to a top 20 ranking in areas other than athletics. If there was a way to rank college orchestras, then the UK Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of conductor John Nardolillo, would surely crowd those top listings right now.
Two things about Saturday night's concert suggest a standard of evaluation daunting for any orchestra: bringing in a top-tier professional in violinist Sarah Chang and programming one of the monsters of orchestral repertoire, Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring.
It's possible for ambition to lead you right over a cliff, especially when the carriage is made of college students. But why not risk it?
Even the concert opener, Johann Strauss Jr.'s Overture to Die Fledermaus, ostensibly a sugar-high romp, is fraught with danger. Its Viennese romantic flirtations dance with a thousand rubato swerves, but the orchestra was hand-in-glove with its flittermousing director.
That made eminently forgivable any less-than-swaggering rhythms and string tone that needed a glossier shine.
Shine of a dazzling kind did come from both Chang's dress (which shimmered with bands of gold against black) and from the sound of her violin. This woman of 29 years has played the First Violin Concerto by Max Bruch for 23 years (not a typo), but it sounded like she was just now discovering it.
Chang drew smoldering intensity from the slow, passionate melodies played on her low strings. Her virtuosic pyrotechnics were unquestionably nailed, but she had a way of weaving hesitations into her surges that had to be both perplexing and inspiring to the orchestra.
The orchestra did seem intimidated. During one explosive full-orchestra passage, the soloist normally rests, but Chang played right along with the first violins. If there was a video of the concert, the violins could learn a life lesson by seeing the sheer effort she was pouring out. It's called passion for music.
There was no intimidation at all in the orchestra's matching up with Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. That work, which caused a riot in its first 1913 Parisian audience, is still an astounding assault on the human system. What meat for youth. In truth, the more raucous the passage, the more the percussion and trombone sections in particular greedily relished the invitation to pound and blare (musically, of course).
Incredibly jagged rhythms were not the problem you would expect, either. Conductor and orchestra were right tight. That is excellent in terms of ensemble, but not so good in free-flying emotions. But the bite of bow on string (there were times when the cellos dominated the entire string section), and the sense of momentum were as impressive as you could ask for.
Just as important are the soft but sanity-challenged passages in the Rite. The first bassoon work by Tony Nesta was equal in musicality to any professional. Nardolillo did accept too much end-of-phrase rushing from him, but he was risking an exceptionalism that should be applauded anyway. Also notable was the beautifully velvety tone of flutist Aaron Sexton.
So how would Dick Vitale rank UK's orchestra? The basketball world's pied piper couldn't help but scream, "Final four, baby!"