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Gustavo Dudamel and Vienna Philharmonic go to a small town in Kentucky. But why?

September 24, 2010 | 10:13 am

Dude 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 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 only has 1,250 students) but to create a place where the 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. 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, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Twyla Tharp, Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman.  Last Friday 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 of Europe.

The title sponsor, local animal health company giant Alltech, decided that 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 founder and 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."

Norton_atnight 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 old-fashioned 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 their 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 in to service on behalf of its people. "I’ll never forget the day I got the Fed-Ex 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 poster is pictured above.)

The college is viewing this as a mini-cultural exchange and is determined to show their visitors the best of their state.  When they arrive Sunday, Dudamel and the orchestra will 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.

While people at the 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 a sum somewhere between $500,000 and $750,000 -- more than double the normal cost of hosting a big American orchestra.

As is usual at the Norton Center, a good proportion of the students will be involved as ushers, valets and other jobs that are essential for an event to run smoothly. “There’s just been so much build-up.” says financial economics major and house manager Sahar Haque. “Everyone is on the edge of their seats.”

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”

-- Marcia Adair

Top: Poster for Thursday's convocation. Bottom: the Norton Center for the Arts.Credit: Centre College


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Comments () | Archives (9)

What? You snobs on the coasts think only city slickers can be cultured? Just because we thrown in a "Ya'll", that's you all, every now and then doesn't mean we don't enjoy or deserve top notch talent of all kinds. Bluegrass music may be the music of the state, but it doesn't mean we have to listen to it all the time. Our universities public radio stations and local venue's such as Norton's are top notch, equal to those on the coasts and across the country. Don't say Why Kentucky, say Why not!

As a student of Centre College, I am very proud to say that my school has the honor of hosting such an amazing event. The whole school is excited to be a part of this once-in-a-lifetime experience. I am commenting to note that what President Roush said is certainly true. Centre students are extremely dedicated to their work, and take advantage of these opportunities whenever they are given. I have seen acts from Moscow, Barcelona, and all over the U.S. in the Norton Center for the Arts, and look forward the excellent events scheduled for this year. These opportunities are given to broaden our horizons and to get students to think past the U.S. to the global community. Twelve of these convocations are mandatory each year, though many shows like the VPO are not considered convocations and are attended by students simply for the honor of attending such an event. The school also has an excellent study abroad program that allows students the chance to study and observe foreign cultures simultaneously. I am excited to be a part of the school's London study abroad program in the Spring semester. About 85% of Centre graduates have studied abroad. I would also like to say what a pleasure it was to read this article, it was very well written and a pleasure to read. I would also like to say I am commenting purely out of the pride I have in my school and not for the school in any way.

^ My apologies for the grammatical errors, I accidentally clicked post instead of preview.

A better question might be, "why not?"

Centre College is an incredibly well-connected school in one the most beautiful areas of the U.S.. Just because it is a small town, or (heaven forbid) in the South, doesn't mean that people can't appreciate beauty and quality there. Further, Centre in particular trains its students to expect excellence--from themselves and their world. That the staff there went to such lengths to secure the Vienna Philharmonic surprises me not one bit.

I do confess some jealousy since I have already graduated and cannot be there for this event but nothing is perfect.

Once again, the benefits of a small school, post-secondary education are clear.

We posed your question to Maestro Dudamel. Here's his answer:

The Vienna Philharmonic is the most sexist orchestra in the world. It has only 2.42% women – the world’s lowest ratio. And even more tellingly, the VPO also has one of the lowest hiring rates for women, which is why its stats for women are so low. The sexism is blatant and undeniable. The Czech Philharmonic, for example, began hiring women in 1997 just like the VPO, but it has been hiring them at five times the rate so that women now represent 8.33% of its personnel in contrast to the VPO’s 2.42%.

This helps answer the articles question. The VPO is playing at Centre College in a small town in Kentucky because very few of our major colleges or universities would be willing to host such egregious sexism. And worse, Centre College is not only hosting this sexism, but is even massively celebrating it.

Centre College’s President is quoted in the article: “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.”

And one might add that when you give students the “opportunity” to be around egregious sexism, they too might think it is something to emulate. And he seems to be telling the students that “anything is possible”, except treating women equally.

I hope there will be at least a few students who confront their President with this issue. At the very least, they will see how administrators can be dissembling and morally myopic.

The Vienna Phil, has indeed come under fire internationally time & time again for its openly sexist & racist hiring practices. Qualified female musicians have been barred from auditioning & denied tenure repeatedly. This unpleasant truth will be carefully disguised during the VPO's visit to Kentucky, though. Having had their concerts disrupted in the past by protesters at major U.S. venues (i.e. Carnegie Hall) over their sexist/racist hiring practices, the VPO, during most televised & U.S. tour performances, hires a significant complement of women musicians - "ringers" -to perform with them simply for appearance's sake. Therefore, Kentucky audiences will see women in the VPO at this concert. But they are only subsitutes, not regular, tenured orch. members. I would encourage students to approach these women & ask them if they are regular, tenured members of the orch. The answer will be "no". It would be an intriguing interview project for brave Kentucky students to ask regular members of the orch. to defend their hiring practices. There have been some remarkable arguments made by VPO members during interviews in the past as to why they don't like to hire women or non-caucasian musicians. An aside to Mr. Osborne: it's quite telling that the one US member of the VPO (mentioned in this article)
is the new member of the trombone section. A nod to your fine work, sir.

Ok. We know who they are and what they cost. What pieces did they play? Just curious.


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