Partnerships help UK Symphony Orchestra land Perlman, others

Violinist Itzhak Perlman performed Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with conductor John Nardolillo and the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra on March 5, 2011, in the Singletary Center for the Arts concert hall. © Herald-Leader staff photo by Rich Copley.

University of Kentucky violinist Megan Lineberry was chatting with a friend ­online Wednesday night when she signed off saying, “I’ve got to get some rest. I have a concert with Itzhak Perlman Sunday night.”

“Not many university ­orchestra musicians get to say that,” Lineberry said.

The 23-year-old graduate ­student also had gotten to say she’s had to rest up for ­concerts with Gil Shaham, ­Sarah Chang, ­Marvin Hamlisch and ­numerous other ­marquee stars of classical and ­contemporary music who have performed with the UK Symphony Orchestra.

Sunday’s performance by Perlman will be his second appearance in as many years with the UK ­Symphony. This one is a ­collaboration in part with the Henry Clay ­Foundation, which will award the violin legend its Henry Clay ­Medallion while he is here. Recipients of the ­medallion, awarded to those who exemplify Clay’s ideals of “statesmanship, compromise and peaceful resolution,” have included Supreme Court ­Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, media mogul Ted Turner and U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, who received it two months before his death in 2009.

“Obviously it is super exciting to have him ­coming again,” said graduate student Jessica Miskelly, 26, who was the concertmaster when ­Perlman played with the symphony in March 2011 and will occupy the same chair Sunday. “I never ­expected him to come back so soon. He must have ­enjoyed himself the first time.”

UK Symphony ­director John Nardolillo notes that Perlman has had a busy month, including ­performances with the ­Boston Symphony, Los ­Angeles Philharmonic and New York Philharmonic. The latter was broadcast ­Thursday on PBS. He also has been busy promoting his new album of ­traditional Jewish music, Eternal Echoes: Songs and Dances for the Soul, with Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot.

“He didn’t have to come here,” Nardolillo said. “He could have easily said, ‘I want to take Sunday night off.’ But he’s coming.”

Like many of the UK Symphony’s recent big gigs, including last year’s concert with jazz and pop ensemble Pink Martini, the Singletary Center for the Arts is the driving force behind pairing the orchestra with the major players.

Singletary Center ­director Michael Grice says the inspiration came soon after he got to the center in 2005. He noticed that the UK Symphony was a really good orchestra, but audiences for their concerts were fairly small. He started talking to Nardolillo about his ambition to bring in artists on the ­center’s touring series and pair them with the orchestra.

“I came up with a list of soloists and asked him if the orchestra could play with any of them, and he said great,” Grice says.

The first one was cellist Lynn Harrell in February 2008. That was followed by Shaham in 2009, Chang in 2010, Perlman in 2011 and pianist Natasha Paremski earlier this year.

Through other ­partnerships, the UK Symphony also has ­enjoyed recent pairings with the Boston Pops and ­conductor Keith Lockhart in ­celebration of Keeneland’s 75th ­anniversary, numerous ­luminaries such Hamlisch and soprano Denyce Graves as part of the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, gigs at Carnegie Hall and the John F. ­Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and several ­pairings with folk legend Arlo Guthrie through Nardolillo’s relationship with him.

Nardolillo says his background as a conductor of professional orchestras before coming to UK helped facilitate the partnerships. Grice says UK’s status as a student orchestra helps make the engagements financially feasible.

“There is no way we could do this if we were having to pay the artist fees along with a professional orchestra and conductor,” he says. “The tickets would be so expensive only elites would be able to come.”

But in this model, Grice and Nardolillo aim to ­continue pairing the ­orchestra with big names. On the ­calendar are ­performances with ­Wagnerian soprano Christine Brewer on Feb. 15 and piano superstar Lang Lang in ­February 2014.

Nardolillo says he and Grice get together ­regularly to dream. A big one the conductor and concertmaster Miskelly share is cello legend Yo-Yo Ma.

“I got to play with him at the Brevard Music Festival, and he was so giving with his time,” says Miskelly.

(Ma will be in the region twice next spring, playing with his Silk Road Ensemble on March 20 at the Eastern Kentucky University Center for the Arts in Richmond and March 21 at Centre ­College’s Norton Center for the Arts in Danville.)

Perlman and the ­others get high marks from ­Nardolillo and students for the time and attention they have given the orchestra, including Shaham sitting in with the students to play Sir Edward Elgar’s Enigma ­Variations after his solo turn. And that helps in recruiting students to the program.

Lineberry observes, “When you have names on your résumé like Sarah Chang, Itzhak Perlman and Gil Shaham, it makes a big impact on someone deciding where they want to go to music school.”

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