University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra heading to China for concert

Conductor John Nardolillo led the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra during a 2011 performance. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Conductor John Nardolillo led the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra during a 2011 performance. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff

The University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra leaves Wednesday on a 12-day concert trip in China, with its last concert scheduled for the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing.

The centre, which is sometimes referred to as The Giant Egg is a glass dome surrounded by a man-made lake. It got that nickname because it resembles an egg floating on water. The iconic building was frequently shown at night during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

"Only the great orchestras play there: the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra. This year we are the only student group playing there," said Rui Li, a Chinese doctoral student in music at UK.

China Central Television will broadcast the concert. "It will reach one billion Chinese homes, so it really is a big deal for our students and the University of Kentucky," said conductor John Nardolillo.

The 79 student-musicians will be accompanied by several UK faculty members.

Nardolillo said the orchestra had put in extra hours of practice to prepare for their concert tour, which he called "a chance of a lifetime for our students."

Freshman trombone player Kristen Petty, from Sonora in Hardin County has never been out of the country or on an airplane. She admitted to being a little nervous.

"I'm afraid I won't know what I'm doing," she said. "But I'm so excited. We'll be playing in probably some of the biggest concert halls I'll ever play in."

The orchestra will play all American music including works by George Gershwin, Aaron Copeland and Leonard Bernstein. They will perform Antonín Dvořák's New World Symphony. The symphony was written by Dvorak, a Czech composer, while he was living in New York in 1890.

"It is based on American folk themes, and some people consider it to be the first piece of American music with a characteristic American sound," Nardolillo said.

Last year Nardolillo, Skip Gray, director of the School of Music and Li visited China to make arrangements for the trip. The orchestra will play in the Shanghai, Yanzhou, Hangzhou, Tianjing and Beijing.

"All these halls are really hard to get to play in. They are the top halls in each big city and they only accept the best groups to play there," Li said.

The opportunity to play in five premiere performance venues came through Li's connections with one of the leading musicians in his country.

Li played trumpet, but he went to Peking University in Beijing to major in economics and international politics. At a concert to welcome the freshmen, Zhonghui Dai, a renown trumpeter and a member of the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra, gave a concert.

Li went up afterward and introduced himself. Dai invited Li to his house that weekend. Li was so excited, he called to tell his father.

Li's father was the only music teacher in the area where Li grew up. "He so wanted me to be a musician. He bought a trumpet for me before I was born," Li said.

"My father wrote Zhonghui a long letter asking if I could study with him, and if he would take care of me while I was in Beijing," Li said. Two weeks later his father died.

For the next four years, Dai and his wife took Li under wing. "I studied at Peking University, but I also took lessons from him at the Central Conservatory," Li said.

Meanwhile, Dai started his career as a conductor. Now he has connections to all the concert halls in China, Li said. "He was able to introduce me and John Nardolillo to some people who run these halls, or who knew people we should talk to," he said.

The Chinese government is supporting professional orchestras. "People start to love classical and orchestral music," Li said. "More people are willing to spend a night in the concert hall."

Li said he hopes the UK orchestra will have a chance to return to China in the near future to play in another five large concert halls.

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