The night before the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team was set to take the court in Indianapolis in pursuit of a historic 39th win and berth in the national championship game, the UK Symphony Orchestra put a W in its record book with its concert featuring superstar violinist Joshua Bell.
To put this in basketball context — which is what everything around here seems to be in, this week — this was like LeBron James coming and playing with Wildcats. Bell is arguably the most famous person playing violin today not named Itzhak, and some would say the Hoosier (we complete our circles here) has even eclipsed the instrument’s elder statesman (who has played with the UK Symphony twice).
But anyone, even LeBron, can tell you a superstar can only do so much on his or her own. Winning, in basketball or orchestras takes a total team effort, and that’s what the audience in the Singletary Center concert hall got on Friday night.
UK has participated in these marquee soloist concerts since 2008, with the Singletary Center booking the star and then pairing him or her with the student orchestra. The guest list has included Itzhak Perlman, violinist Sarah Chang and, last year, pianist Lang Lang. All have been dazzling nights, but this may have been the most complete concert of the bunch.
The first half was devoted to the student orchestra playing Dmitri Shostakovich’s Festive Overture and Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite. In these concerts, there has often been an untidy orchestral work it seemed didn’t get proper attention in the midst of preparation for the soloist.
But nobody wants to hear a ragged Firebird, and they didn’t Friday. After the tone-setting overture, the orchestra lit up Stravinsky’s masterwork with a sharp, fully nuanced performance from that haunting rumble of low strings to the dazzling woodwind work that gives Firebird its life.
Far from distracted by the star, this UK Symphony sounded refined by months of working on everything from Stephen Sondheim to György Ligeti, the most vexing composer the orchestra encountered in its performance of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Director John Nardolillo wisely programmed Bell’s appearance for the second half, as some previous concerts have seen the audience diminish in part two when the soloist played only in the first half. When Bell took the stage for Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in g minor, he found a more than capable partner in the orchestra. Concertos can be like theater, where one actor’s performance elevates the other’s, and the UK musicians seemed to give Bell plenty to play off of Friday night in fiery exchanges of passages. That’s not to say that Bell did not provide a veritable violin clinic with his fleet fingers and tight bow technique. It was one of those performances we have to thank Singletary Center for the Arts director Michael Grice for providing.
Bell seemed to enjoy the collaboration with the students in his exceedingly physical performance. After the concerto, Camille Saint-Saëns’ Introduction and Capriccioso in a minor served as a sort of scheduled encore for Bell, and more of a playground for the visiting artist to dazzle the audience (and all in the hall) with a show of passion and prestidigitation.
The audience, which appeared to fill about two-thirds of the 1502-seat Singletary Center concert hall, was a bit smaller than you might expect for an artist of Bell’s stature. The culprits likely included a $65 to $85 ticket price, Fayette County Schools’ spring break, Good Friday observances, a record rainfall that turned navigating some sections of town into a maze-like exercise and a certain basketball team preparing to play a historic game a mere four hours away (I have covered arts in this town long enough to know there is a strong crossover audience of arts and Cats fans). Given that promoter’s nightmare of conflicts, it may be a testament to Bell’s stature that as many people showed up as did.
Folks that were there saw an orchestra worthy of the superstars it gets to play with and that at UK, elite isn’t a status just enjoyed by basketball.