LOUISVILLE — Late Thursday afternoon, the National Symphony Orchestra was a little bit lost on the University of Louisville campus.
It's not hard to get lost there — it's a big campus, the Bluegrass Tours bus driver advised the NSO leaders. But pretty soon, the big blue bus had sidled up to the curb in front of the U of L School of Music and the musicians were carrying — in a few instances, lugging would be the word — their instruments in for a couple of hours of master classes and clinics.
It was not the usual modus operandi for an orchestra on tour: fly in, go to a hotel, go to the concert hall for the show, go back to the hotel, and fly out the next day. But then again, the National Symphony Orchestra's Kentucky residency is not a typical tour.
The orchestra will be in the Bluegrass State until Friday. And while the agenda has big concerts — including at the Singletary Center for the Arts in Lexington on Wednesday night and in Somerset on Thursday — last Thursday afternoon's excursion to Louisville was more to the point.
"This orchestra is called the National Symphony for a reason," Hugh Wolff, conductor for the Kentucky residency, said Thursday afternoon. "It's based in Washington D.C., it performs concerts for the people of Washington and its environs. But it is the national symphony, and it has as part of its mission, taking symphonic music to people all over the country, particularly in rural areas and places where they don't have access to it all the time and showing what a symphony orchestra is and how an orchestra can be involved in the community.
"This orchestra shows that the arts belong in every community, and working together, we can make it happen."
The Kentucky stay is the 22nd annual stop in the residency program, which started in 1989 with a trip to Alaska. In an often-told story, several musicians even traveled past the Arctic Circle to Point Barrow, the northernmost point in the United States.
"They went and mingled with Eskimos," said principal bassist Robert Oppelt, a native of Richmond who has been on all of the NSO residencies. "Those are the kinds of experiences musicians talk about their entire careers."
They give local musicians something to talk about, too.
As musicians from brass to woodwinds to strings filled the halls of the School of Music, their lessons have a common theme: basics.
"I'm not using that much bow because it's my preference," bassist Paul DeNola said to Sidney King's class on the double bass orchestral repertoire. "I'm using it because that is what this part requires."
"He's covering some complex things, but talking about them in simple terms," King said, as DeNola led his class.
In his tuba master class, Stephen Dumaine used simple terms to describe the nature of the instrument.
"You remember that tree in Charlie Brown that used to eat kites?" he asked his students. "That's what the tuba does to all the notes."
To help emphasize expression, he encouraged senior Bryen Warfield to exaggerate his expression, blasting quick, deep bleats from his instrument's huge bell.
The classes were "all part of the mission of creating great musicians," said Doane Chris, dean of the School of Music.
The U of L students are accustomed to working with professional musicians, but as the NSO travels out into the state, its musicians will meet with people who rarely get the opportunity to see or work with a musician of their stature.
The schedule includes events such as a concert for senior adults in Paducah, sectional rehearsals for high school students in Owensboro, a teacher workshop in Eddyville, an in-school performance in Somerset that will be broadcast to schools across the state, and a meeting with high school fiddlers in West Liberty.
The NSO's executive director, Rita Shapiro, said that over its eight days in Kentucky, the orchestra was scheduled to present six concerts — one in each congressional district — and more than 125 other events. Shapiro credited the Kentucky Arts Council with keeping the group so busy.
"It's clear they understood the intention, and they have gone well above and beyond to make this happen," she said. "What we need the arts council to do is get the word out around the state, and that's what they have done.
"We have tried to accommodate any request," she added.
The ultimate goal, she said, is "to promote orchestral music and music education around the country. When we hear stories like a farmer hearing about one of our performances while he's on his tractor — which happened in North Dakota — and saying, 'I have to get a ticket to see that,' it makes it all worthwhile."
Thursday's events in Louisville not only brought the national orchestra to Kentucky, they brought the residency back to papa. The Kentucky Center's director, Stephen Klein, started the residency when he was executive director of the orchestra.
The benefit for the program is in its original intention, he said, to make connections.
"They will get to know people in Kentucky," Klein said, "and Kentuckians will get to know these marvelous musicians."