DANVILLE — The most unlikely of arts events became a reality Monday night when one of the greatest orchestras in the world, the Vienna Philharmonic, performed under the baton of one of classical music's hottest stars, Gustavo Dudamel, on the campus of a small college in the heart of Kentucky.
"This makes all those begging phone calls worthwhile," said Debra Hoskins, assistant director of Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts. Her persistence is widely credited with making the improbable event happen.
Hoskins surveyed the VIP crowd in the Norton Center lobby, which included Gov. Steve Beshear and former Govs. Ernie Fletcher and Brereton Jones, internationally acclaimed singer Ronan Tynan, Danish royalty and many other notables.
Earlier in the day, Dudamel addressed the question of why he was coming to a small Kentucky town, posed most loudly by the Los Angeles Times. "Music can go everywhere," he said, "and here is a beautiful place with very nice people, and it's amazing to come here to give music and receive energy."
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Before the concert began, Centre President John Roush presented Dudamel with an honorary doctorate in humane letters. Dudamel then spoke briefly about how as a child he used to "conduct" recordings of the Vienna Philharmonic. Then, he proceeded to conduct them in real life.
While the audience Monday night paid $100 or more to see the show, Centre College students and others in the Central Kentucky music community got to see the rehearsal for free.
Even though it was only a rehearsal, Nick Niehaus broke out the tux.
"This is the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra!" Niehaus said, explaining his late morning attire. "I thought, I have the tux, I ought to wear it."
For many students, just hearing a rehearsal was exhilarating.
"They're so smooth, and everything that's in the music shows," said Louesa Akin, 20, a freshman from Paducah. "Watching Dudamel, you see the excitement and the passion."
That audience got to see the extent of the event, including cameras mounted on giant cranes over the stage for NBC to film the concert.
For Central Kentucky Youth Orchestras music director Kayoko Dan, it was a chance to reconnect with an orchestra for which she was a conducting fellow in the summer of 2007 and to see another youth orchestra conductor who'd made it big. Dudamel first became known for his work with the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, a youth orchestra in Caracas, Venezuela, that is part of the arts education program El Sistema.
"It means this job can be the start of an awesome career," said Dan, who asked Dudamel to sign a Dvorak score for her. Dan said she knew of about eight to 10 CKYO kids who were coming to the concert, "but I can't, because we have rehearsal. I let them off though. It was a good excuse."
After watching the rehearsal from backstage, Dan said, "The energy comes from him, and his sound is just amazing. The soft is amazingly soft — you can barely hear it.
"It takes time to do that, and a lot of young conductors just rush to the next thing, but he works with it."
UK Symphony director John Nardolillo said the Philharmonic "knows that music inside-out, and with that, they can really make it their own."
Jasmine Watts, 20, a Centre junior from Boston, said that while she has plenty of cultural opportunities back home, "this is pretty special to have it right here on campus, and it's free."
"I saw the program notes and said, we'd be nuts not to go to this," said Nana Mensah, a Lexington business analyst.
His wife, Leah Mensah, a member of the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra board, said the concert "gives more focus to the arts and how important they are."
The sold-out concert was part of the Alltech Fortnight Festival, a series of concerts in conjunction with the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. The games were a key to drawing financial support for the concert and interesting the orchestra in coming.
"It's really an appropriate event for the Games because it has an international flavor," said Fletcher, who was governor when the games were secured.
Roush, the Centre College president, was quick to point out that the concert was the latest in a long line of huge events the Norton Center has hosted, including the 2000 vice presidential debate.
"This is not the first time we have done something like this," he said, "and it won't be the last."
If they need someone to recommend Kentucky to other artists, they need only to look to Dudamel, who, along with the orchestra, enjoyed two days of Kentucky culture, including horse farms and bluegrass music.
"We saw the life of the place, with the horses and the farms," Dudamel said. "I am very happy, very impressed and I hope to come back."