WEG is chance for unprecedented cultural showcase

The talent heading to Lexington during the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games isn't limited to horses and riders.

The singer with the No. 1 song on the country music charts for the past couple of weeks, Blake Shelton, will be performing a free show on the Courthouse Plaza in downtown Lexington.

One of the top orchestras in the world, the Vienna Philharmonic, will be on stage at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville.

And one of the top 10 arena tours in the nation, Nickelback, will play Rupp Arena.

That doesn't even mention performances by legends like Tony Bennett, The Temptations, Chubby Checker, Ralph Stanley, Ivan Neville, Charlie Daniels and John Lithgow and up-and-comers like The Hold Steady, Miranda Lambert, Laura Bell Bundy, the Punch Brothers and many, many others.

This is no coincidence.

Like the Olympics, to which the World Equestrian Games are often compared, there is a cultural component to the Games. The arts and entertainment part of WEG is composed of several efforts including Alltech's Fortnight Festival across the state and the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government's Spotlight Lexington Festival.

There are a few artists left to be announced for the opening ceremonies — which already boast Kentucky native Wynonna Judd and international opera star Denyce Graves — but most of what will happen during WEG is now known.

"When you look at the level of talent that will be here in Central Kentucky during the Games, it's astonishing," Lexington Mayor Jim Newberry said Thursday.

Deborah Hoskins, director of programs and public relations at the Norton Center, said, "We have an opportunity to show the world the diversity and the sophistication of Kentucky, and we are doing that with these events."

What happened to U2?

The thing that still dogs the WEG entertainment offerings is that none of them is U2 or the Rolling Stones.

Those were names that were mentioned when the Fortnight Festival was announced in January 2008.

"I am going to be the first to say that I made a mistake," said Alltech founder and president Pearse Lyons, who initially got music lovers salivating when he floated those and other names. "When I do something, I do it boldly and with passion, and at that time, I thought I could deliver that. But I could not deliver that."

Lyons and Hoskins said those and other blockbuster acts were approached, but when they began talking to them, it became clear that either they would not come or the costs would be prohibitively expensive.

Hoskins said a big part of that expense was because the acts were not on tour in North America at the time, so any performance would have been what is known as a "run-out concert," in which an act travels for one date.

"Doing a run-out with an act of that magnitude, they have to build the whole production, the lights and sound, and you're paying for all of that," Hoskins said. And the cost would then be passed on to the ticket buyer.

The rock band Nickelback, by contrast, will come to Rupp on Oct. 8 in the midst of a tour, on the way from Cleveland the previous night and to Little Rock, Ark., the next evening.

"There's an understandable tendency to be disappointed," said Bill Owen, CEO of the Lexington Center, whose venues include Rupp Arena and the Lexington Opera House. "But from our venue's perspective, the number of shows in the narrow window of time they have and the quality of the artists they are bringing in is an incredibly significant accomplishment."

'A huge variety'

There was one exception to the rule of not getting a blockbuster act: The Vienna Philharmonic, a veritable Rolling Stones of classical music, will play the Norton Center on Sept. 27.

The Philharmonic rarely tours in the United States, usually only making a visit to New York every few years and then returning to Austria. But the orchestra was persuaded to come to Danville for one performance with conductor Gustavo Dudamel, one of the hottest stars in classical music today. To classical music fans, that pairing could be compared to the Stones playing with Katy Perry. But classical music does not command the same audience as rock stars, which organizers say highlights one of the appeals of the WEG offerings.

"If you had one of those major rock acts at an arena or stadium in Lexington or Louisville, all of the energy would have focused on that event," Hoskins said. "This way, they have been able to spread a lot of different types of events around the state."

Orla McAleer, a Games project manager for Alltech, said, "To my mind, you have a huge variety. A big part of doing it was to help people around the state feel like they had a part in the Games."

That's why the Fortnight lineup includes shows as far away from Lexington and the Games as Jason Mraz in Murray on Sept. 26.

Venues partner with Alltech

Fortnight is coming together through a couple of different ways. Some events in the festival were booked by Alltech. Others were booked by the venues or promoters, and Alltech is supporting them through means such as insuring the presenter against any losses.

The Singletary Center for the Arts' director, Michael Grice, said his venue has both kinds of shows during the Games, including the Beach Boys on Oct. 6, which Alltech booked; opera star Bo Skovhus on Sept. 28, which the University of Kentucky Opera booked; and saxophonist David Sanborn on Oct. 9 and composer and conductor Marvin Hamlisch, who will lead the UK Symphony, on Oct. 2, which the Singletary Center booked as part of its Signature Series.

"I would have booked David Sanborn and Marvin Hamlisch whether Alltech was part of it or not," Grice said. "But it helps to have Alltech's support and be part of the overall event."

The Singletary Center will host five Fortnight Festival events, including the Lexington Philharmonic's Sept. 30 concert with retro big band stars Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.

So far, Grice says, shows are selling well, though Singletary's current top-selling act of the next season is violin legend Itzhak Perlman with the UK Symphony on March 5.

"We usually sell the majority of tickets to most events in the last two weeks before the show," Grice said.

The lasting legacy

Accentuating the walk-up crowd during WEG are prospects that many potential patrons won't be here until the Games start on Sept. 25.

But even after they are gone, Lyons and others say they hope a lasting legacy of the Games will be heightened ambitions for what Lexington can do in terms of its cultural offerings. There's even talk of turning Fortnight and Spotlight into annual events.

"We have events in the spring and summer, like the Fourth of July events," Newberry said. "But we really don't have a signature fall event, and this is a beautiful time of year here in Kentucky."

Lyons said he has been struck by events such as the Ravinia Festival in Chicago and Spoleto in Charleston, S.C., and would like to see Fortnight develop into a similar event for Lexington.

"Maybe the World Equestrian Games can be a catalyst for something like that," Lyons said.

Owen observed that an ongoing festival would be great, "but I think the legacy will be: You will have people go back to Switzerland or Belgium or Japan or South Africa or Brazil or wherever and say, 'You know, Central Kentucky and the state of Kentucky have such a rich cultural heritage,' and they will tell their friends, and their friends will come see it themselves.

"And part of the legacy, too, is the community pride that people are going to have knowing people came for the Games, but they saw so much more than the Games ... For people who love the arts, its going to be so much more of an experience for them."

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