A little more than two years ago, the Norton Center for the Arts' then-director, George Foreman, and its director of programs and public relations, Debra Hoskins, were in the office of a powerful New York classical music manager with a big idea: They wanted to bring one of the world's great orchestras to Danville for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
They were thinking about the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
Impossible, the agent told them. It would never happen.
Walking down a long hall after the meeting, Foreman recalls looking back over his shoulder at Hoskins as she whispered, "I'm going to get Vienna."
That agent, he said, had just said "no" to the wrong person.
Last Tuesday, Hoskins was in the Norton Center's Newlin Hall as Centre College and Alltech leaders announced that the Vienna Philharmonic would indeed be coming to Danville — with hotshot young conductor Gustavo Dudamel wielding the baton.
The deal came together with a combination of relationship-building, working through non-traditional channels and raising a whole bunch of money.
"It was all Debbie's work," said Foreman, who left the Norton Center at the end of last year to take the helm of the University of Georgia's performing arts center. "If I was still there, it certainly would be the biggest concert I ever presented. I can say with deep admiration, I wish I had done it."
Foreman — who presented numerous huge acts, including Yo-Yo Ma and the New York Philharmonic, in Danville (population 15,477) during his 26-year tenure there — ventures to call the Sept. 27 performance "the biggest classical music concert ever in Kentucky."
It certainly has to be near the top. Why?
It's the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. This is a group you read about in history books, whose recordings you listen to on albums with black-and-white photos on the cover and golden yellow labels on the record. Of most of the pieces the orchestra has recorded, the Vienna Phil's albums are the benchmark editions. And the group has recorded pretty much everything. And they've done so under the batons of great maestros, including Furtwängler, Böhm, von Karajan and Bernstein.
Getting into the Vienna Phil as a musician is monstrously hard, and it ain't easy as a fan to see them. Tickets to see the VPO in Vienna are as tough to get as tickets to see the University of Kentucky men's basketball team in Lexington. It is to orchestras what the Cats are to college basketball.
The Norton Center has brought in major orchestras before, including the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia and Cleveland orchestras and the Boston Pops. But those groups were on national tours, so the trick was persuading them to make a small town in Kentucky a stop on their journeys, say, between Atlanta and Chicago.
What makes this gig impressive is that the Vienna Philharmonic is not on tour in September.
Hoskins persuaded the group of 125 musicians to fly in just for this show. Then it will go to New York for three shows at Carnegie Hall and jet back to Europe. Usually, the orchestra goes only to New York, although it is planning an early 2011 tour of Southern California. But there is little to no precedent for the Vienna Phil showing up in a small Southern town.
And it's Gustavo Dudamel. Now that I've made the Vienna Phil sound really old, let's talk about the counter balance, which is what I really like about the setup of this concert.
We have one of the oldest, most venerable orchestras in the world being led by a 29-year-old phenomenon. Some people might have wished for a more time-tested hand, say Daniel Barenboim or Claudio Abbado, and I can see that. Watching Lorin Maazel conduct the New York Phil at the Norton Center in 2009 deepened my appreciation for the economy and skill of the great conductors.
But Dudamel and Vienna is a wonderful marriage of youth and tradition.
I only wish there were maybe a contemporary piece on the program, such as John Adams' City Noir, which Dudamel has been conducting on tour with the Los Angeles Philharmonic this spring and conducted in his debut as the L.A. Phil's music director last fall. This concert will focus on classics, including Ravel's Bolero and Dvorák's New World Symphony.
Dudamel, the subject of major press coverage everywhere he goes, adds immeasurable wattage to this event.
This makes us look good. There has been some kvetching recently about the entertainment lineups for the World Equestrian Games not being up to snuff, and making Central Kentucky look small-time in front of the world. I say that while noting that not all events have been announced. At the press conference heralding the Vienna Phil concert, Alltech's founder and president, Pearse Lyons, said more acts in the company's Fortnight Festival, of which this concert is a part, will be announced June 17.
Orchestras might not be the marquee attractions that they were in the mid-20th century and earlier. But I guarantee you: People around the nation and the world are looking at this concert and saying, "Wow."
One musician whom I follow on Twitter wrote, "How did that happen?!"
Apparently, because one Kentucky woman wouldn't take no for an answer.