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Arts Preview 2009-10: Retirement, economy bring changes in arts leadership

To see change in Lexington's arts scene this season, look no further than the podium of the city's flagship arts organization. For the first time in 38 years, a new maestro will step in front of the Lexington Philharmonic. Exit George Zack. Enter Scott Terrell.

But this season of transition hardly ends with the Phil. Central Kentucky Youth Orchestras, an elite student ensemble, has a new conductor: Kayoko Dan, who was one of 10 finalists for the Philharmonic position.

That's some top-to-bottom change.

Central Kentucky also has a major theater in transition, others growing, and a ballet company stepping back into the professional spotlight.

"I think it's not so much change as it is maturity," says Joe Tackett, Lexington Ballet's new executive director and a veritable poster child for arts change: He ended last season as education director and music librarian for the Philharmonic.

"I don't think we need to change as much as we need to grow," he said.

Tackett is one of several arts leaders guiding organizations in new directions — and growth.

The most obvious sign of change to audiences is when there is someone new in front of them, which is the orchestras' situation.

"People are curious and interested in what we're doing," CKYO's Dan said in a joint interview with the Philharmonic's Terrell. "There's a lot of buzz."

People see the music directors onstage waving their batons, but a lot of the work that will move classical music forward in Lexington will happen as the directors pore over scores, selecting music and programs and launch new initiatives with their orchestras.

"I'm not one that likes complacency," says Terrell, who launched several programs as resident conductor of the Charleston (S.C.) Symphony Orchestra.

Scheduling his first season, which Terrell did before he was introduced as the new music director in April, took "a little blind faith," he says.

This season, Terrell and Dan say, is one of looking for new possibilities and initiatives and ways to launch them.

Sort of like what Robyn Peterman-Zahn has done for the past season at Paragon Music Theatre.

Classics find new audiences

Peterman-Zahn, Paragon's artistic director, is a Lexington native who left for a stage and film career of her own before returning to Lexington and joining forces with music director Ryan Shirar and choreographer Diana Evans Pulliam.

She has helped to revive musical theater for local artists who had a hard time finding a place to play after Lexington Musical Theatre closed in the 1990s.

Presenting the war-horse musicals Hello, Dolly! and The Sound of Music might not seem like change, but "there's a reason shows like that are still here: timeless music and great characters," Peterman-Zahn says. "If you can take an older show and bring out something new in it through character interpretation and music, it endures and finds a new audience."

Under Peterman-Zahn's direction, there are logistical changes afoot. The troupe will stage a show in the fall (Hello, Dolly!), instead of spring, at the Lexington Opera House; will mount its cabaret performance in the winter; and will present The Sound of Music next summer, when there will be more time to prepare in the Opera House and the show can have a two-week run.

Behind the scenes, someone must set up the structure to make the art happen. Tackett says that at Lexington Ballet, he has to look at things from a different perspective than when he was at the Phil.

"I used to be the crazy art guy with all these ideas," Tackett says. Then the Philharmonic's executive director, Peter Kucirko, would say, "How are we going to pay for that?"

"Now I sound like Peter," Tackett says.

Tackett's job is to put the financial and organizational structure in place to steer the ballet into a period of ambitious growth, going from no professional company last year to an eight-person troupe this year. And the corps is projected to grow to 32 in a few years.

The ballet has one of the most important things for an arts group, says Actors Guild of Lexington managing director Kimberly Shaw.

"It's textbook non-profit," she says. "Anything you do is mission-driven, whether you're feeding the hungry or producing great works of art."

Recovery and growth

Shaw joined Actors Guild last fall, just before the theater fell into a deep financial crisis, so she is now one of the major players in trying to help the organization recover. That recovery includes plans for change — launching new series and initiatives, as money allows, to give the theater a more sustainable financial structure.

"I came to management because I was truly interested in it," says Shaw, who once thought she might want to play piano in pit orchestras for Broadway musicals. "I'm not an artistic visionary, but I know what we can be and the tools it takes to get us there."

Says Peterman-Zahn: "Times of financial crisis can produce great art. When times are easy, people start to worry about things other than art. But in times of stress, you're very focused."

Despite a poor economy, in the past year, LexArts' community arts director, Nathan Zamarron, has launched numerous initiatives, frequently beyond traditional venues.

Some of his highest-profile work has been with neighborhood associations, developers and public transportation. Among projects set to launch is a filmmaker competition to create The Kentucky Theatre's new "policy trailer," the short film before a feature that tells you to turn off your cell phone and put your trash in a garbage can; and a Youth Arts Council of high school students.

Recently, Zamarron saw one of his initiatives grow in an unexpected way: A mural at Al's Bar, one of several around the city that LexArts supported, resulted in a new stage in Duncan Park to help perpetuate the North Limestone neighborhood's music tradition, which the mural depicts.

"As we activate more projects, more and more groups come forward and say, 'We want to do that,'" Zamarron says. "The excitement builds."

That excitement can be indicative that things are heading in the right direction.

"We're in a period of growth and change," Zamarron says, "and it's not just change, it's change for the better."

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