Music News & Reviews

University of Kentucky musical groups do their own things this weekend

Hear that over at the University of Kentucky? That's the Phantom echo.

After spending the beginning of October consumed by UK Opera Theatre's Phantom of the Opera, the various ensembles of the School of Music are now filling their calendars.

This weekend features their own programs, including the 20th anniversary reunion performance of the acoUstiKats male chorus and the UK Symphony's American concert featuring one of the premiere performances of a new work by acclaimed composer William Bolcom.

"When we're able to do a production as great as Phantom, the students really benefit," Jefferson Johnson, director of choral activities at UK, says of the production earlier this month at Lexington Opera House. "The leads in Phantom were the UK Chorale. So it was great, but it also meant we had to confine a lot of programming until after Phantom closed."

That doesn't mean that groups weren't working on other material as Phantom played. UK Symphony director John Nardolillo says musicians frequently were going from rehearsals for Friday's concert to playing at Phantom rehearsals and performances.

"They were two very different things," Nardolillo says.

Phantom is built on the lush melodies of Andrew Lloyd Webber, but Friday's UK Symphony concert is made up of very mid-20th century works by Charles Ives and Carl Ruggles and a new composition by Bolcom called Prometheus, which was a co-commission by nine institutions including the Detroit Symphony, the Pacific Symphony in Los Angeles and the Calgary Symphony in Alberta. The catalyst for the commission was internationally acclaimed pianist Jeffrey Biegel, whom Nardolillo says invited UK to be part of the commission.

"Bolcom's score, which is a setting of Lord Byron's Prometheus, has something to say, and the performance said it brilliantly," Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed wrote of the world premiere performance with the Pacific Symphony in November 2010.

Biegel will be in the hall for Friday night's performance that includes the UK Chorale and Choristers.

Maybe even more ambitious is Ives' Symphony No. 4. It is rarely played because of its complexity and the instrumentation, which includes three pianos, a quarter-tone piano, organ, saxophone and a distant group of violins playing the part of "the 'voices of angels,'" Nardolillo says. The piece also takes four conductors to move it along. Among the challenges and tweaks are different parts for every violin stand and solos for the last-chair violinist and violist.

"It's a challenging program for the students and the audience," Nardolillo says. "But it is an important program, and I hope people will come out to hear it."

Many of the musicians playing Friday will be onstage again during the weekend for performances that include a concert by the nationally acclaimed UK Percussion ensemble Sunday at the Singletary Center for the Arts and a UK Women's Choir concert that is part of its series at First United Methodist Church in Lexington.

The Men's Chorus extravaganza Saturday night at Memorial Hall will include a reunion of members of the acoUstiKats a cappella ensemble. The group was started by Johnson shortly after he arrived at UK in 1993, and he says the ensemble has been a major tool in recruiting new male singers to program.

"Students hear them when we go to schools and they say, 'I want to go to UK and become a part of that,'" Johnson says.

He points to a prestigious group of graduates that includes choir directors at numerous regional schools.

"They learn to be better singers, but they also learn a work ethic, responsibility, time management and public speaking," Johnson says.

In addition to the Kats reunion, the Memorial Hall audience will hear the 70-voice Men's Chorus, which is building a national reputation through performances at gatherings for the National Association of Music Education and the American Choral Directors Association.

"We are really maintaining a level of excellence," Johnson says, "and that's self-evident, because if they weren't excellent, they wouldn't be invited to perform."

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