WASHINGTON – Last February, the Kentucky Humanities Council and the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre claimed Abraham Lincoln as the Bluegrass State’s own through music and words in the Our Lincoln concert at the Singletary Center for the Arts.
Monday night, the same artists staked that claim on a national stage: the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C.
The performance of Our Lincoln at the Kennedy Center was a chance for the artists involved, including the Lexington Singers and the UK Symphony Orchestra, to play on the stage of one of the most prestigious arts venues in America. It was also a chance for Kentucky to show off.
“When I heard about this, I said, in one fell swoop, you could change a lot of people’s minds about our state,” Robert Brock, artistic director of Kentucky Repertory Theatre, said, recalling receiving his invitation to portray Lincoln’s law partner, Billy Herndon, in the show.
Brock’s performance was one of numerous pieces meant to portray the 16th President, usually associated with Illinois, from a distinctly Kentucky perspective. The performance was created as part of the celebration of the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth in Hodgenville.
Our Lincoln included Augusta’s Nick Clooney narrating Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, UK alum and Metropolitan Opera tenor Gregory Turay singing a new musical setting of The Gettysburg Address, Kentucky Poet Laureate Jane Gentry reading her poem about a Lincoln portrait in her house, and excerpts from River of Time, a forthcoming opera about Abraham Lincoln by UK composer Joseph Baber.
The program was narrated by national radio host and Louisville native Bob Edwards, and it was attended by a who’s who of Central Kentuckians including Lexington Mayor Jim Newberry, and U.S. Reps. Ben Chandler and Hal Rodgers.
“This is a proud night for the State of Kentucky because of what we are about to show the nation,” University of Kentucky President Lee Todd said to about 400 people at a pre-show reception in the Kennedy Center.
The crowd included Kentuckians who made the trip to Washington, expatriate Kentuckians living in Washington, people invited by their Kentucky friends and pure concertgoers.
Dr. Jay A. Perman, dean of the UK College of Medicine, said he brought the leadership of the Association of Medical Colleges and UK Medical School Alumni working in D.C. because, “We need to celebrate what’s good about Kentucky.”
Two notable absences were President Barack Obama, who was invited but did not attend, and Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, who was scheduled to attend, but stayed in Kentucky to oversee recovery efforts from last week’s winter storm.
Organizers of the event had been instructed to prepare for the possibility of the President attending, including gathering information about all participants to provide to the Secret Service.
“Obama really should see this,” Gentry said, after watching most of Monday’s rehearsal.
But, like most performers, she thought performing in the Kennedy Center was a thrill in itself. Gentry did allow that reading in the Kennedy Center’s concert hall, “was not as daunting as the Singletary Center, because it’s not as wide. It feels more intimate.”
George McGee, who portrayed Henry Clay as on the Kentucky Chautauqua performers, was one of the first to step out on the stage and speak a few lines.
“I looked out, and it just kept going up and up and up,” he said of the hall, with four levels of seating.
The Washington version of Our Lincoln included several changes from the original production, such as the inclusion of the Gettysburg Address, composed by Alan Gershwin and arranged by James Burton, critically acclaimed violinist Mark O’Connor stepping in for Nathan Cole and Akiko Tarumoto, who performed in last year’s show, and changes in groups, primarily the UK Symphony filling in for the Lexington Philharmonic.
Everett McCorvey, one of the show’s producers, said that to everyone’s surprise, the cast grew from around 300 to more than 375. Most performers, including the Lexington Singers Children’s Chourus and the Lexington Vintage Dance Society, traveled by charter bus from Lexington to Washington.
Lighting designer Tanya Harper, who works at the Singletary Center, said one of the great things about the event was all the familiar faces.
“We see these people all the time in Lexington,” she said, surveying the artists on stage. “This is just a very different place. But it’s an honor to be here and it’s an honor to share the experience with all of these people we know so well.”
During that Monday afternoon rehearsal, camera flashes frequently burst from the stage, as singers and instrumentalists wanted to preserve the moment.
“So many of the great artists of the last 50 years have performed here,” Madison Pietrowski, an 18-year-old violist in the UK Symphony Orchestra, said, and with a giggle, she added, “including us.”
During a rehearsal break, Pietrowski was having her picture taken with a few friends on the stage.
After the wow moment of thinking, “I’m performing in the Kennedy Center,” once the performance starts, violinist Amanda Markley said, “It becomes more about the music, and then when the audience claps, you snap back and think, ‘Wow, this is at the Kennedy Center.’”