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Every group survived; some even thrived

On Jan. 1, 2009, I assumed that by the end of this year, I would have written about at least one Lexington arts group closing its doors. The economy was buried nose-first in the ground, and theaters and other arts organizations were folding around the country.

Actors Guild of Lexington did give us plenty of offstage drama, but there were no fatalities here as far as arts groups go. Some even thrived despite the nation's foundering fortunes.

The poster child for doing quite well was Studio Players. In the depths of our national despair, Studio put up a winter show about Lexington native Mary Todd Lincoln that it thought might have limited appeal. But The Last of Mrs. Lincoln was a sold-out hit that had to add performances to accommodate audience demand.

That's pretty much how 2009 went for Studio, the pinnacle of the year being the summer production of Always ... Patsy Cline that added numerous performances including — unprecedented for Studio — Wednesday shows.

Studio was not alone in bucking trends. The Lexington Ballet hired a company of professional dancers, the ballet's first pro troupe since the early part of this decade. Paragon Music Theatre presented its first two main-stage productions, directed by new artistic director Robyn Peterman Zahn, at the Lexington Opera House.

Lexington and Central Kentucky were not immune to economic challenges. Donations to campaigns cooled, and the Kentucky Arts Council has had to endure several cuts, particularly because of reductions in state funding.

But everyone came out alive.

Of course, there were other big arts stories in '09:

A new maestro: After two years of searching, the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra picked Scott Terrell as its music director. He succeeded George Zack, who had held the Philharmonic's baton for more than three decades.

It seems the change has done the orchestra good.

"This orchestra is coming alive," Herald-Leader contributing critic Loren Tice wrote in a review of November's MasterClassics concert. "There is a sense of cohesion, of belief that there is first-rate music being made here."

The new face has given the Philharmonic a chance to rebrand itself with a more youthful profile, helped by a group of hip young soloists to start Terrell's debut season. In all, it has been a profound change for Lexington's flagship arts group.

Actors Guild meltdown: Lexington's flagship theater had a much different year. Actors Guild has long been angling to become the area's fully professional theater for adult audiences (Lexington Children's Theatre has been a professional house for years). In May, it announced plans to make that move, but less than a month later, the bottom fell out. LexArts, exasperated after years of AGL's financial roller coaster, withdrew annual general-operating funding from the theater. That loss of nearly $70,000 sent the theater into a tailspin, with artistic director Richard St. Peter and managing director Kimberly Shaw eventually leaving.

In the fall, AGL presented an abbreviated and altered schedule from what was announced last spring. The December production of The SantaLand Diaries reportedly was sold out, and Actors Guild said it is making plans for 2010. But nothing has been announced.

It's worth noting that at the same time, other area theaters, including The Woodford Theatre, Balagula Theatre and Lexington Children's Theatre, have thrived.

Our Lincoln in Washington: Many Lexington artists and groups get to perform on celebrated stages, notably Carnegie Hall in New York and Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. But taking 375 performers from a diverse ensemble of groups to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., was a whole new level of ambition.

The Kentucky Humanities Council pulled it off, traveling — despite the ice storm that befell Central Kentucky — to Washington in early February to put on a show for 1,463 people. The performance, narrated by Bob Edwards and including the Lexington Singers and University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra, is now available on DVD at the Humanities Council Web site,

Film incentives pass: In June, the state General Assembly approved a bill providing financial incentives to filmmakers who shoot in Central Kentucky. The incentives — a 20 percent refundable tax credit for production and post- production expenses for f eature filmmakers who spend at least $500,000 in Kentucky — are seen as essential to attract filmmakers. An immediate result was Disney's Secretariat, which filmed in Kentucky in October.

New works: It's always important to remember new performing-arts works, because they help keep the disciplines vital and relevant.

This year started with Lexington Ballet's production of The Magical Tales of Beatrix Potter in March and ended with The Woodford Theatre's original holiday show, The Christmas Presence. In between, Actors Guild launched Silas House's second work for the stage, Long Time Travelling; Pioneer Playhouse director Holly Henson presented The Infamous Ephraim, about Danville physician Ephraim McDowell's historic abdominal surgery; UK Opera Theatre premiered composer Joseph Baber and librettist James W. Rodgers' opera River of Time, about young Abraham Lincoln; the Lexington Singers premiered A Bluegrass Tapestry, which was 11 songs accompanying the photography of James Archambeault; the Lexington Ballet presented The Köln Concert, set to Keith Jarrett's iconic jazz concert album; and the UK Symphony premiered Lorne Dechtenberg's Token of Affection.

Other headlines

Lexington's Michael Shannon was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor for his role in Revolutionary Road. ... Lexington musical theater artist Christopher Tolliver was fatally shot at Lexington Green. ... The New York Philharmonic played a sold-out show at Danville's Norton Center for the Arts. ... Lexington Children's Theatre celebrated its 70th anniversary. ... Central Kentucky Youth Orchestras named Kayoko Dan its new music director. ... Former UK Opera star Reshma Shetty landed a role on the USA TV network's series Royal Pains. ... LexArts announced that Horse Mania will return in 2010. ... UK's Cliff Jackson was named coach of the year by Classical Singer magazine. ... Winchester's Jason Epperson, runner-up on Fox's On the Lot film-director reality series, shot his feature film debut, Unrequited, in Central Kentucky. ... Norton Center completed a $3 million renovation. ... The Men of Note big band played its last gig. ... Former Kentucky State University drama teacher and area director Jack Parrish died. ... Norton Center director George Foreman announced that he is leaving for the University of Georgia. ... The Radio City Music Hall Rockettes came to Rupp Arena for the first time with the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.