Music News & Reviews

Cultural exchange culminates with concerts at University of Kentucky

The horse head fiddle is a traditional Mongolian instrument
The horse head fiddle is a traditional Mongolian instrument Photo provided

The University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra finished the 2012-13 school year in China, and it will start the new year welcoming Chinese musicians to the Singletary Center for the Arts.

Friday's season-opening concert will be part of Living Landscapes, a weeklong arts exchange festival between the fine arts colleges at UK and China's Inner Mongolia University. The festival has included art exhibits by students and faculty from both institutions, and music and dance performances.

Friday's calendar includes two concerts, one small and one large.

At noon, the UK-based Red State Ramblers will join the Horse Head Fiddle Ensemble of Inner Mongolia for a performance that had yet to be defined as of Wednesday afternoon.

Ron Pen, a Red State member and director of the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music at UK, says the groups will spend a couple of hours Friday morning putting together a program that will be part of the center's Appalachia in the Bluegrass series.

"At worst, they will play a piece, then we'll play a piece, then they'll play a piece, then we'll play a piece," Pen says. "Hopefully, we'll find a few songs we can have joint ownership of."

Pen has reasonable confidence that will happen based on other cultural exchanges in which his group has participated, including two for the U.S. State Department in Ecuador and Kyrgyzstan.

"We have mashed up our music where songs flowed between cultures and we even traded instruments," Pen says. "It's all about listening to one another and responding."

The Horse Head Fiddle Ensemble, which champions the two-string, bowed instrument native to Mongolia, will go from the cozy confines of the Lucille Caudill Little Fine Arts Library at lunchtime to the stage of the Singletary Center for the Arts on Friday night. That nighttime UK Symphony concert will feature it and other Inner Mongolian artists, plus conductor Banzar Lhagvasuren from Inner Mongolian University, who will lead three selections.

According to UK Symphony director John Nardolillo, the concert's first half will be music from faculty or alumni of Inner Mongolia University and the second part will be American music the UK Symphony prepared for its Chinese tour in May. Five of the pieces will be U.S. premieres.

Nardolillo says the Mongolian music is a challenge to his students in the same way Chinese musicians had to work to connect with the jazzy rhythms and idioms of pieces like George Gershwin's An American in Paris when the UK Symphony was in China.

"They saw markings in the music that they didn't know what they meant because they don't exist in Western music; we don't know the idiom," Nardolillo says of his students.

Working to understand those things is part of the value of cultural exchanges, he says.

"Music is a mechanism for expressing and explaining humanity," says Nardolillo. "Any time you're visiting another culture, you're expanding your understanding of what it means to be a human being."

Pen says, "The experience can be changing one country's feeling about another country by hearing who they are through music instead of rhetoric."


Living Landscapes

What: Multidisciplinary festival of American and Chinese art presented by University of Kentucky College of Fine Arts, UK Confucius Institute and the Art College of Inner Mongolia University.

When: Through Sept. 28

Learn more:


Events include:

■ Appalachia in the Bluegrass performance by Red State Ramblers with Horse Head Fiddle Ensemble of Inner Mongolia. Noon Sept. 27. Niles Gallery's Lucille C. Little Fine Arts Library.

■ UK Symphony Orchestra with Inner Mongolia University guests. 7:30 p.m. Sept. 27. Singletary Center concert hall.

■ Juried exhibition of works by UK and IMU students. Barnhart Gallery, Reynolds Building.

■ Works by faculty of the UK School of Art and Visual Studies. Tuska Center for Contemporary Art, Fine Arts Building.

■ An exhibition of works by faculty of IMU. The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky, Singletary Center.