Ronald Saykaly didn't know exactly what he was paying for.
The Lexington physician and his wife, former concert pianist Teresa Garbulinska, attended the inaugural Chamber Music Festival of Lexington in 2007 at the invitation of friends.
At the first event, they met festival president Charles H. Stone. Saykaly says, "I was so impressed with what they did, the tremendous volunteerism and high quality of the performance, I told Charlie, 'Look, if you ever need help, I'd be happy to help you with something.'"
Less than a year later, Stone came calling. He had met a young composer, Daniel Thomas Davis, and wanted to commission him to write a new work to premiere at the second edition of the festival. Saykaly thought it sounded like a great idea. He had no idea what Davis would write and whether it would have a life beyond the festival, but he bought in.
"It turned out to be rather successful," Saykaly says.
He has supported a commission at the festival each year since then.
Davis' Book of Songs and Visions ended up being played around the United States and Europe, and it won the 2009 ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award. It came back around to the Bluegrass when Lexington Philharmonic music director Scott Terrell programmed a symphonic version of it for the orchestra's 2010-11 season.
"I said, 'Scott, you know, that's my piece, and if you're going to bring him here, I'd like to commission it,'" said Saykaly, who had joined the Philharmonic board about that time.
That planted the seeds for the Saykaly Garbulinska Composer-in-Residence Program between the Philharmonic and the Chamber Music Festival, which will bring one composer to both orchestras every other year.
Davis' Philharmonic commission last February was an informal start to the program. The commissioning of Daniel Kellogg, who wrote a piece called Look Up at the Sky for last summer's Chamber Music Festival and will have a new work on Friday night's Philharmonic concert, is the first formal manifestation of the effort.
"We sat down with Ron and said, we have these two entities," says Terrell, who chooses the composer with Chamber Music Festival director Nathan Cole, a Lexington native and associate concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. "We have the orchestral entity where I, as a conductor, know there are composers really hungry to have new works commissioned. Then you have an organization that already has several new compositions under its belt. We said, there has to be a way this can work to our mutual strengths."
It also can put Lexington on the classical-music map.
"I really like this model: the chamber festival with the symphony orchestra," says Kellogg, who does not know of another city doing that kind of collaboration. "I think it's a really cool model for smaller cities where it's not so practical for an orchestra to present multiple pieces on a single season when the orchestra isn't presenting as many programs. To combine with another ensemble in town does a few different things: It helps broaden the audience, and it gets the composer in multiple times and allows for more outreach opportunities.
"Involving multiple organizations is a great way to make a residency more affordable and much more meaningful or impactful."
Saykaly and Garbulinska come by their love for music naturally. Both studied piano, and Garbulinska performed in the United States and Europe, including on the stage of New York's Carnegie Hall. And they have donated to area arts organizations before, usually anonymously or with theirs name in small print in the concert program.
But when they agreed to finance the composer-in-residence program, Stone insisted their names be used.
They also, under their names, now support the Saykaly Garbulinska Concert at the new University of Kentucky Albert B. Chandler Hospital. It's a private fund-raiser in the medical center's theater, featuring an artist who also performs with the Philharmonic. The most recent edition of the concert was Midori's appearance in September.
Terrell, the philharmonic's music director, says it's often easier to get donors to contribute to concerts, concert series or endowed chairs because there is a bit more certainty in what the outcome will be. With commissioned works, there is more risk.
As a physician, Saykaly likens the commissions to financing medical research.
"Young people are looking for opportunities to get themselves known," he says. "This money is unencumbered. We just want you to compose something. There are no specific demands. It's just an opportunity. And hopefully with that opportunity, you can create something, you can develop, the community participates, you're also educating the community. Who knows what will come of it? It could be a total flop."
But if it succeeds, the benefits can be enormous. Terrell says that for an orchestra today, "the way you are going to get yourself known outside of your community is by doing new work."
He also says new works help lure new audiences who are more interested in hearing new things than a repetition of the standard orchestral repertoire.
"I can't afford a big prize for a big person," Saykaly says. "But we can still have an effect on society in our own way that is meaningful of just giving people an opportunity to develop. That's very rewarding. That in itself is the joy. I did anticipate it. That wasn't the purpose. But it may be the reason to continue.
"At first, it was, 'Let's donate. It was a fun thing to do. If these things are successful, they grow far beyond the original intent."
Nearly five years after that first commission, that is where he and his wife find themselves.