Keeneland had the 75th anniversary, but University of Kentucky musicians and Lexington music lovers got to party Saturday night in Rupp Arena.
The Boston Pops and the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra joined forces for an unprecedented joint concert to mark the racetrack's anniversary celebration and benefit the UK orchestra's statewide outreach program to elementary school students.
The student musicians were wowed by the opportunity of the concert, which included a portion when the students played side by side with the Pops, but the group known as America's Orchestra seemed fairly impressed with the Bluegrass as well.
"We want to move here," Pops conductor Keith Lockhart told an audience of 3,700 in Rupp. The venue was set up with the top tier curtained off and 38 dining tables on the floor. The arrangement was similar to what audiences often see when they watch the Boston Pops on TV.
To Paul and Kim Melanson, who moved to Lexington from Boston six years ago, it felt like being home.
"When we heard they were coming, we said, 'We've got to go!'" Kim said. Big fans of Lockhart, they were anxious to see what the animated maestro would do. Kim said, "He's so much fun to watch. He always makes a real connection with the audience."
The concert was unique, even for the Boston Pops. The University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra played the first third of the show. Then the Boston Pops played the middle portion. For the end, the orchestras combined, with a student and a pro on each music stand.
The Pops has played concerts to benefit college programs before, but not by playing with collegiate musicians.
"It was an enormous thrill to see such a mass of excellent musicianship," Versailles native and Pops principal cellist Ron Lowry said after a late-afternoon practice.
Since it was announced last fall, the concert had been eagerly anticipated by University of Kentucky Symphony musicians.
UK principal cellist Sara Birnbaum, who shared a music stand with Lowry, grew up in Boston and went to Boston College for her undergraduate degree.
"I don't think I ever would have had a chance to do this in Boston," she said.
For many students, it was a first time getting to play in Rupp; their usual home is UK's Singletary Center for the Arts. Some were used to the arena, thanks to experience in the UK band at basketball games.
"It's different," said doctoral student Chase Hawkins, the orchestra's principal trumpet player. "You have to play what you see on the music and from the conductor instead of what you hear."
In addition to the UK student instrumentalists, UK choir students, the Lexington Singers and the Lexington Singers Children's choir were in the show, singing numbers including Queen's operatic rock song Bohemian Rhapsody.
"It's amazing to be part of something like this," said Dr. George Privett, a member of the Lexington Singers. "It's an incredible celebration that (UK Symphony conductor) John Nardolillo has brought together.
"And this orchestra — when I went to Texas Tech, we never had an orchestra like this."
Helping to bring the event together in Boston was Dennis Alves, director of artistic programming for the Boston Pops, whose son Patrick plays clarinet in the UK Symphony.
"Ever since I came here and saw this orchestra, I wanted to bring the Boston Pops to UK," Alves said. "And the great thing for UK is, all these musicians are going to go back to Boston telling people what a great music school they have at Kentucky."