Lit­tle school big on cul­ture

How Ken­tucky’s Cen­tre Col­lege landed Du­damel and the Vi­enna Phil­har­monic.

Los Angeles Times - - Calendar - Mar­cia Adair

On Mon­day, Gus­tavo Du­damel will con­duct the Vi­enna Phil­har­monic in Danville, Ky., a town of 18,000 right in the mid­dle of thor­ough­bred coun­try. Ear­lier in the day, the Venezue­lan mae­stro will be given the ti­tle of Ken­tucky Colonel.

The story of how this hard-to-imag­ine event in blue­grass coun­try came about is dif­fi­cult to un­ravel, partly be­cause it’s been a long time in the mak­ing but also be­cause ev­ery­one we in­ter­viewed had a rather an­noy­ing habit of giv­ing the credit to some­one else.

Thirty-seven years ago, Cen­tre Col­lege, a pri­vate lib­eral arts col­lege old enough for its name to be spelled the Bri­tish way, built a top-tier con­cert hall de­signed by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foun­da­tion — not to ac­com­mo­date the school’s or­ches­tra (Cen­tre has only 1,250 stu­dents) but to cre­ate a place where top acts in all gen­res could per­form for stu­dents and the small com­mu­nity.

Clas­si­cal mu­sic afi­cionado Ge­orge Fore­man was man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of the col­lege’s Nor­ton Cen­ter for the Arts from 1983 to 2009, and un­der his watch A-list acts be­came the norm.

“At some point I en­vi­sioned a goal of bring­ing the top five Amer­i­can orches­tras to that lit­tle town,” Fore­man said by phone. “It seemed like a noble goal. And a crazy goal. We did fairly well at it over the course of the years.”

Fairly well in Cen­tre­s­peak means the Kirov, Ge­wand­haus, Royal Phil­har­monic, Paris, Cleve­land,

Philadel­phia, New York and Is­raeli orches­tras as well as Ru­dolf Nureyev, Twyla Tharp, Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perl­man. On Sept. 17, Frankie Valli was in town, and soon af­ter the Vi­enna or­ches­tra plays, Smokey Robin­son will take the stage.

Fore­man had Vi­enna on his mind for more than 10 years, but it was never the right time. Then, in 2008, Ken­tucky was awarded the 2010 All­tech FEI World Eques­trian Games, the first time the com­pe­ti­tion has been held out­side Europe.

The ti­tle spon­sor, lo­cal an­i­mal health com­pany All­tech, de­cided there should be a pro­gram of en­ter­tain­ment as a night­time com­ple­ment to the daily events.

“It’s got to be more than horses,” said All­tech Pres­i­dent Pearse Lyons. “The idea was to take that right across the state and we would have the Temp­ta­tions, the Beach Boys and Wynonna Judd all the way up to opera. And if we’re go­ing to go opera, why not tie with Cen­tre Col­lege, and so we went out to find the best of the best and then we got to the Vi­enna Phil­har­monic.”

The cen­ter’s di­rec­tor of pro­grams and pub­lic re­la­tions, De­bra Hoskins, was con­sult­ing for All­tech, so it was up to her to take the next steps.

Hoskins doesn’t take no for an an­swer, and af­ter ini­tial in­quiries were re­buffed by the Vi­enna Phil­har­monic’s North Amer­i­can agent, CAMI, she turned Google ninja and found con­tact in­for­ma­tion for the or­ches­tra’s tour man­ager.

The Vi­enna Phil­har­monic didn’t re­turn a request for com­ment, but it ap­pears that the en­gage­ment was se­cured on the back of the World Eques­trian Games, the col­lege’s prior ex­pe­ri­ence with big orches­tras and some good old­fash­ioned greas­ing of the wheels.

“E-mail is one thing,” Hoskins said, “but when they hear an ac­cent from Ken­tucky, par­tic­u­larly one as thick as mine is, come across the tele­phone, they were prob­a­bly think­ing, ‘Lord have mercy. Where are we go­ing to?’ I was send­ing them Ken­tucky bour­bon and choco­lates. I just wanted them to know the fla­vor of Ken­tucky and the hos­pitable na­ture that we have here.”

When it came time to choose the con­duc­tor, the Vi­enna or­ches­tra staff sug­gested Du­damel, since he would also be lead­ing the or­ches­tra in its up­com­ing Carnegie Hall dates be­fore be­gin­ning his sec­ond sea­son as mu­sic di­rec­tor of the L.A. Phil­har­monic.

“I had just watched the PBS spe­cial on Du­damel, and we were so ex­cited that he is com­ing,” Hoskins said.

Se­cur­ing one of the world’s best orches­tras and hottest con­duc­tors would be enough for most peo­ple. By now you should be able to guess where this is go­ing.

“I got the bright idea, you know,” she con­tin­ued. “Du­damel is com­ing and the VPO is com­ing, we should have Princess Haya [of Jor­dan], the pres­i­dent of the [In­ter­na­tional Eques­trian Fed­er­a­tion], come to the con­cert.”

Ken­tucky bour­bon was once again called into ser­vice on be­half of its peo­ple. “I’ll never for­get the day I got the FedEx pack­age,” Hoskins said. “It was Dec. 14, right near Christ­mas. I opened it up and I saw her royal seal on the let­ter say­ing she’d be so happy to ac­cept our in­vi­ta­tion. I’m sur­prised you didn’t hear me squeal [in Los An­ge­les] when I got that!”

Class sched­ules at Cen­tre have been re­ar­ranged to al­low stu­dents to at­tend the Mon­day dress re­hearsal, and the or­ches­tra’s only Amer­i­can mem­ber, trom­bon­ist Jeremy Wil­son from Ten­nessee, will be giv­ing a mas­ter class. To en­hance the ed­u­ca­tional ex­pe­ri­ence even fur­ther, a spe­cial con­vo­ca­tion was held on Thurs­day night de­voted en­tirely to “Vi­enna and the Dude.”

The col­lege is view­ing this as a mini-cul­tural ex­change and is de­ter­mined to show its vis­i­tors the best of its state. On ar­rival Sun­day, Du­damel and the or­ches­tra were to be taken to sev­eral neigh­bor­ing horse farms for a Ken­tucky wine tast­ing and a full Pride of Ken­tucky din­ner (all prod­ucts come from the Blue­grass State). Some­time dur­ing their visit Vi­enna and the Dude will be made Ken­tucky Colonels — the state’s high­est honor. Word is a Colonel San­ders im­per­son­ator has been en­gaged.

Though peo­ple at Cen­tre were coy about the ex­act cost of the event, they con­firmed that it wouldn’t be in­ac­cu­rate to say that All­tech and the six com­mu­nity spon­sors had to come up with be­tween $500,000 and $750,000 — more than dou­ble the nor­mal cost of host­ing a big Amer­i­can or­ches­tra.

While ev­ery­one in­ter­viewed at Cen­tre was al­most giddy with ex­cite­ment, there was still a sense of this sort of event be­ing just one more in a long line of suc­cesses for a col­lege that con­sis­tently punches above its weight.

“This is a place of dis­pro­por­tion,” said Cen­tre Pres­i­dent John Roush. “It tends to do the un­ex­pected with some mea­sure of fre­quency, so it doesn’t seem un­ex­pected.”

The nag­ging ques­tion about this was al­ways: Why? Surely stu­dents can just watch the DVD like ev­ery­one else in small-town Amer­ica. For Roush and oth­ers at Cen­tre, the rea­son is clear. “When you give a stu­dent an op­por­tu­nity to be around great­ness, then they can imag­ine that they too might be able to do great things. The most im­por­tant im­pact is that our peo­ple from Cen­tre Col­lege be­lieve that any­thing is pos­si­ble.”

POSTER: A con­vo­ca­tion in ad­vance of Gus­tavo Du­damel’s visit is touted.

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