It’s a typical rehearsal two days before a concert.
The University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra is on the stage in the Singletary Center for the Arts Concert Hall with conductor John Nardolillo stopping occasionally to tweak parts, but mostly letting the music flow.
Centerstage two violinists trade increasingly virtuosic, knee bending phrases, somewhat reminiscent of a little Peach State fiddle duel Charlie Daniels once sang about.
This is where things become less typical.
One of the violinists is UK graduate student Jessica Miskelly. The other is Mark O’Connor, a classical music star who has distinguished himself by successfully bridging traditional classical music and American folk. He’s currently in the midst of a short residency at UK which will culminate in a Friday night concert featuring O’Connor, several of his compositions, the UK Choirs and several students sharing his spotlight.
“I’ve been doing more residencies the last couple of years at institutions,” O’Connor said in his dressing room, a few minutes before Wednesday’s rehearsal began. “Every time I show up at performances around the country, there’s all kinds of questions about, ‘Where’s this music going?’ and what your background is. There’s always some kind of educational component to it, so I just decided to expand that.”
In addition to UK, O’Connor works with students at the School for Creative and Performing Arts and the UK String Project, a primary school program, this week.
O’Connor has done his mini-residencies at prestigious schools such as the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and the University of California, Los Angeles.
But he wanted to come to Kentucky.
In part, it was because of a growing relationship between O’Connor and the orchestra, which included another visit several years ago and a performance in February with the UK Symphony at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as part of the Our Lincoln production.
“John Nardolillo has put a great emphasis on performance and getting the material ready,” O’Connor said, referring the UK Symphony’s director. “It’s just fantastic to see and hear . . . It’s going to be a darned good show for the audience.”
This visit also brings O’Connor close to Appalachia, a region he is strongly identified with thanks to his own music and several celebrated albums of Appalachian music with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and bassist Edgar Meyer.
“I think of Appalachia as the country, in large extent, because all the music came from this area,” O’Connor said. “It’s always wonderful to bring my music back to the source.”
That opens the door to the larger purpose of O’Connor’s university work.
“I’ve had a lot of successes in my career, and a big emphasis is perhaps now on a couple of key things,” O’Connor said. “One is to further perpetuate the idea of an American string school or string music, an American classical music that can really develop with these new ideas about more understanding of traditional and cultural American music language, history and traditions . . . Rarely has the classical music aesthetic coincided with the folk music aesthetic to the point where I’d like to see it.
“One of the ways to develop that, in addition to my recordings and compositions, is hitting the next generation and getting that idea planted.”
Miskelly says, “I’m really curious to see where his influence will take American music. The idea of bringing the violin and the fiddle together is very exciting.”
Just as exciting is the chance to perform with a bona fide star. Not that this is anything new for the UK Symphony. Over the past several years, the university orchestra has collaborated with several classical luminaries such as cellist Lynn Harrell, violinist Gil Shaham and later this year the orchestra will perform with violinist Sarah Chang.
So maybe Wednesday’s rehearsal wasn’t so atypical, but none of those other visits have given student soloists a chance to share the spotlight with the star. In addition to Miskelly, cellist Geoffrey Hershberger will also team up with O’Connor.
“My jaw doesn’t stop dropping,” said Hershberger, a doctoral student from Long Beach, Calif. “He’s very down-to-earth, but I’m still a little starstruck. It’s an amazing opportunity.”