The journal of a Kentucky culture vulture
The University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra will open its 2012-13 season the same way the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony will: with a performance by legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman,
The concert, on Sept. 30 at the Singletary Center for the Arts, will be a return engagement by Perlman, whose 2011 performance with the orchestra was one of its most successful concerts ever. Tickets will go on sale at 10 a.m. Monday through the Singletary Center ticket office.
“People could not get tickets to that show,” UK Symphony director John Nardolillo said in reference to the sold-out concert in March of last year. “The amazing thing is that he’s coming back so soon. It’s rewarding to know that he thought this was something worth doing again.”
The concert with Perlman will kick off a season that will end with the symphony touring China and includes a performance by Wagnerian soprano Christine Brewer.
The orchestra’s trip to China in May will include performances at the National Center for the Performing Arts and Forbidden City Concert Hall in Beijing and visits to Shanghai University, the Shanghai Conservatory and the Central Conservatory in Beijing.
Perlman’s visit is sponsored by the Henry Clay Foundation, which will award Perlman the Henry Clay Medallion while he is in Lexington. The award, according to the foundation, is to people whose lives and work have exemplified 19th-century leader Clay’s ideals of “statesmanship, compromise and peaceful resolution.” Previous winners of the award, which was introduced in 1993, include Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, media mogul Ted Turner and late U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy. This was the award that brought the high-profile visit last year of U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner and former speakers Nancy Pelosi and Dennis Hastert to Lexington.
“We have never awarded it to a musical ambassador before,” said Christina Bell, director of development for Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate. “I cannot think of a better musical statesman in the world, and Henry Clay did play the fiddle, though certainly not as well as Itzhak Perlman.”
Bell said the foundation contacted Nardolillo about a concert in conjunction with its activities marking the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Ashland during the Civil War.
Perlman will perform the iconic violin concerto by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky in a concert that will also include Antonín Dvorák’s Symphony No. 9 (From the New World). His visit will come on the heels of a season-opening engagements with the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Filling in the UK Symphony’s season will be:
Oct. 26: “American Modernists,” composers inspired by the rugged individualism of Teddy Roosevelt, Emerson, Thoreau and Hawthorne. The program includes Ruggles’ Men and Mountains, William Bolcom’s Prometheus, a Kentucky premiere and UK co-commission with the Detroit Symphony and the Pacific Symphony featuring piano soloist Jeffrey Biegel, the UK Choristers and Chorale; and Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 4.
Nov. 28: Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 5.
Feb. 15: An all Wagner program, commemorating the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth, featuring acclaimed Wagnerian soprano Christine Brewer. The program will include Wiesendonck Lieder, which was the source material for Tristan and Isolde, and the great final scene from Wagner’s Ring, the Immolation Scene from Gotterdammerung.
March 29: Concerto competition winners, Shostakovich Symphony No. 5.
April 19: In celebration of Benjamin Britten’s 100th birthday, his monumental War Requiem with the UK Choirs and the Lexington Singers.
Click here for a look at all five new characters for Kentucky Chautauqua’s 2009-10 season.
If you call the Smiths in Cynthiana asking for a Chautauqua performer, you’ll have to be more specific.
Are you calling for Edward Smith, who plays Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan and former University of Kentucky basketball coach Adolph Rupp in the Kentucky Humanities Council‘s living-history program?
Or do you want his wife, Betsy B. Smith, who plays Emilie Todd Helm, Mary Todd Lincoln’s sister and the wife of Confederate Gen. Benjamin Hardin Helm?
Maybe you want their oldest son, Ethan Smith, who plays Johnny Green, one of the few survivors of the Confederate Orphan Brigade, and Price Hollowell, a key figure in Western Kentucky’s Black Patch War.
“Chautauqua is just kind of our thing,” says Edward, an associate theater professor at Georgetown College.
Chautauqua performers present significant characters from Kentucky’s history in 45-minute presentations. The roster includes Abraham Lincoln and Grandpa Jones.
George McGee, a Georgetown College theater professor who has played Henry Clay in Kentucky Chautauqua for years, brought the Smiths into the program.
“Betsy and I actually met in his drama class,” Edward says . “So when I came back to teach at Georgetown, I knew he (McGee) was playing Henry Clay, and he said, ‘Whenever they do a call for characters, you should audition.’”
It was a good way for the professor to keep his acting chops sharp. Smith developed the Rupp character, which he has played since 2001.
Ethan noticed what Dad was doing and decided he wanted to get in on the act. But he was 13 at the time. Chautauqua characters are people who have had a significant impact on Kentucky history. Not many young teens fit that description.
But Ethan found one in Price Hollowell, a boy who testified against the infamous Night Riders who attacked Western Kentucky farmers who did not participate in a tobacco-company boycott.
“It started as a summer project,” says Ethan, now 18. “Being a Chautauqua performer is a lot of responsibility because you represent the Humanities Council and all the other performers. So I would have understood if I wasn’t even picked to audition. But it was still a good research project, because Price Hollowell’s story is not known to many Kentuckians.”
Then, Mom got in on the acting.
“I had a V8 moment,” Becky says. “I was the history major with the communications degree who was so immersed in Civil War history as a kid. If you had told me at 9 or 10 I could have a job wearing a long dress, talking about Abe Lincoln, I’m in.”
Betsy took on Helm, the “rebel in the White House,” according to her Chautauqua billing. The character has taken her all the way to the stage of John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., where she and several other Chautauqua performers were part of the Our Lincoln presentation Feb. 2.
Chautauqua usually doesn’t have the actors performing that far away.
As a historian, Betsy has enjoyed the chance to help her husband and son develop their pieces. Ethan says that in developing Hollowell, he used books from his mom’s shelf that he couldn’t find anywhere else. When he decided to develop another character, she pointed him to Johnny Green’s Journal, which “you can’t just find in bookstores,” Ethan says. “It’s not Harry Potter.” He also devoured a 1,200-page history of the Orphan Brigade.
Ethan as Green and Edward as Harlan debuted their new characters Monday at the Lexington History Center before a panel that included history and theater experts.
A big part of the job, the Smiths say, is figuring out how to tell their characters’ stories in 45 minutes.
Ethan’s Green comes off as a war-weary adventurer, describing some of the hardships of the Civil War and relaying what kept him going, from dedication to the Confederate cause to a deep desire to get home to Kentucky.
Edward was intrigued by Harlan’s status as a former slave owner who was the only dissenting vote in the high court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which upheld segregation, and other 19th-century civil rights cases.
“It intrigued me to see how he could go from this to this, to truly be a guy who changed his mind,” Edward says.
In addition to building a 45-minute monologue, the actors have to be pretty sharp on their characters’ history and the times they lived in, because people in the audience can toss in questions.
In the Smith home, that leads to lots of chatter and work as the actors read up and talk about their subjects. And that’s not lost on the younger Smiths: Harry, 13, and Ross, 11.
Edward proudly touts their success in speech competitions and says Harry has started to ask when he’ll get to do a character.
“We do have to tell him, ‘Harry, it’s not really a birthright,’” he says.
But don’t be surprised if this trio of Chautauqua performers eventually grows into a quintet.
Later this summer, we’ll catch up with Bet Stewart as Rosemary Clooney.
When actors signed up to play characters in the Kentucky Humanities Council’s Chautauqua program, they thought they’d be playing schools, libraries, community meetings and things of that sort.
“I never even thought I’d perform in the Singletary Center,” said George McGee, who portrays Henry Clay, a few hours before he would take the stage of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as part of the Humanities Council and University of Kentucky Opera Theatre’s production of Our Lincoln.
McGee’s Clay is one of several Chautauqua characters in the Our Lincoln production, including EmilieTodd Helm, Lincoln’s sister-in-law, played by Betsy Smith of Cynthiana; Mary Owens, Lincoln’s first romance, played by Barbara Flair of Greensburg; and Lincoln himself, played by Jim Sayre of Lawrenceburg.
All said the Kennedy Center was far beyond the expectations they ever had for their parts. They also said that it took them off their games a little bit.
“Eye contact with the audience is really important to the character,” said Flair. “So it’s kind of hard when you look out and all you see is white light.”
But none of the performers would trade away the experience, even if it means adjusting their acts a bit.
“I’m just proud to be here,” Sayre said. “It’s humbling.”
About Rich Copley & Copious Notes
Raised by opera-loving parents in a rock ’n’ roll world, Rich Copley has parlayed his broad interests into his career writing about arts and entertainment. Since 1998, he has covered performing arts, film and faith-based popular culture for the Lexington Herald-Leader, the daily newspaper in Lexington, Ky. MORE | E-mail Rich