Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Sound of Music in the Bluegrass - Part 1

About 18 months ago, as I was perusing the orchestra’s calendar for the upcoming season, I saw the entry “Kzt. Dudamel – Lexington”. My first thought was, “hmmmmm… Naw, it can’t be”. So I went to the Philharmonic office one day and asked about it, and I found out that the orchestra was indeed planning a concert in…are you ready for this… Ken-dadgum-tucky!!!!!! I know what you’re all thinking; it is the exact same thing I was thinking. Why exactly is the Vienna Philharmonic traveling to a town with 15,000 residents to play a concert in the auditorium of a small liberal arts college? Well, the LA Times article about the concert answers that question better than I can:

Last week the time finally came to head towards Danville, Kentucky, and I was so excited and even a bit nervous to see how the colleagues would react to the South and to such a small town. I have told them all about the beauty and hospitality of my neck-of-the-woods, and I hoped that they would enjoy their short time in the Bluegrass. Well, my expectations were met and exceeded during our visit, and I think some of the orchestra members wanted to stay another few days.

As soon as we hit the ground at the Lexington airport, the crew from Centre College whisked us all away for two days of amazing events. The first stop was the site of the 2010 World Equestrian Games. We were welcomed by Pearse Lyons, whose company Alltech is the title sponsor of the Games, and then we were serenaded by a group of kids from Haiti. Ronan Tynan, the famous Irish tenor, had performed the night before at the opening ceremonies of the Games and was somehow coaxed into singing “The Impossible Dream” for us.

These horse statues were all over the horse park

"He's got the whole world in His hands"

Ronan Tynan sings

The busses then wound their way through the Kentucky countryside to Gainesway Farm, a prominent horse farm and arboretum on the outskirts of Lexington. The narrow oak-lined roads, the afternoon sun, and the miles of black wooden fences and stone walls made for a very pleasant ride. So many colleagues said with great astonishment, “It’s really beautiful here!” That’s what I’ve been telling you!!

Gainesway Farm

We were greeted in front of a beautiful red and white stable by the owner of the farm, and then were allowed to just walk around the grounds and taste some South African wines. We were supposed to have been able to watch some of the competitive events at the Equestrian Games, but were unable because of time restrictions. The folks at Gainesway Farm provided us with an impressive alternative when they trotted out one of their prize thoroughbred stallions. He was an amazing animal, and I believe they said he was the father of at least one Kentucky Derby winner.

It was also at Gainesway Farm that I was able to meet an old friend. Ben Polk, a classmate and friend from my time at North Texas, now lives in Bowling Green, Kentucky. He and his wife Kristin are on the music faculty at Western Kentucky University, and he drove up to Lexington to hang out with the orchestra and me.

Mark, Ben, and I at Taylor Made Farm

The final stop on our “Tour of the Bluegrass” was Taylor Made Farm, where we were treated to a delicious steak dinner complete with cornbread muffins and pecan pie! There was also a fantastic bluegrass band there from Shelbyville, Kentucky; they played all the down-home favorites before and after the meal, and I was very curious to see how the colleagues would react to it all.

To my surprise and delight, the orchestra members were absolutely enthralled by the bluegrass music! I watched and smiled as they all gathered ‘round the band and in many cases spent the entire evening glued to the elbows of the musicians. They were particularly pleased with the lightning-fast banjo picking (it was the first live banjo most of them had ever heard) and the singers’ great three-part harmonies. They were really curious about the oddity of the dobro, which I did my best to describe in German. At one point, one of our violinists borrowed the fiddle and played along to “Oh, Suzanna”. Gustavo Dudamel, our conductor for the Kentucky concert, had to be pulled away from the band at the end of the evening; he just wanted them to keep on playing!

VPO violinist Erich plays some bluegrass

Ben and I with Maestro Dudamel

I did finally succumb to the temptation that every Tennessee native experiences when in the presence of a bluegrass band.


The leader of the group looked over his shoulder and asked, “May I ask why?” I explained to him that I was a member of the orchestra and a UT graduate, and could he please, please, please play it just once? They laughed and obliged me my one redneck impulse (other than devouring cornbread). Here’s a short video clip:

My orchestra pals got a huge kick out of hearing Rocky Top. They couldn’t understand most of it, but every time it got to “Rocky Top, Tennessee” they would look at me with huge smiles. They also got to hear me talk about myself a lot, mostly because all the Centre College folks in attendance wanted to hear how a Tennessean makes it into the VPO. Several people would ask me, “So, are you studying here in the area?” or “What brings you to the dinner?”

“Well, sir, I’m a trombonist with the orchestra.”

“You’re not Austrian! How did that happen?”

And ... commence audition story.

Tuba player Christoph Gigler pets a real Kentucky thoroughbred

As the evening was winding down and we were all sitting around in a pecan pie afterglow, someone yelled out, “Everyone into the barn!” For some reason, we all listened and herded into a very dark and creepy-looking barn. I commented at one point that it felt like we were all in store for a hazing ritual of some kind. When we arrived, we were treated instead to a horse training demonstration. Of course!

There was an Australian cowboy in attendance at the dinner; he had flown in a couple days before specifically to work with a certain horse on Taylor Made Farm. We found out in the demonstration that the horse had been completely fresh the previous day. It had never been ridden and had very little training. In one day, this cowboy was able to lead the horse around, get it to respond to his whip, and even ride bareback. He spent about twenty minutes showing us some of the skills they had worked on, and it was amazing to see him work. His hands were always moving and he was always in control of the situation, even when the horse got freaked out now and again.

Inside the horse training demonstration

It was a day I’ll never forget. We were made to feel so welcome in the Bluegrass, and we hadn’t even played a note yet!


  1. I still smile every time I think of my old squad leader playing with the VPO. So glad to see everything is going well for you and that they all got a little taste of what it is to be southern.

  2. That is awesome!! Thanks for posting.

  3. Loved Rocky Top, Jeremy! Haven't heard it forever being here in Texas where UT is not big orange country- Amy Stokes- (horn player : )
    Enjoying the blog!

  4. Love this! Thanks for sharing Rocky Top with the VPO. You do have one of the coolest jobs ever.

  5. Hi Jeremy,
    Glad you had a great time. Thanks for sharing your story. And also thank you for giving up some precious downtime to meet with several of the Centre College students. It was a great opportunity for them - and us! Hope we can connect again in the future.

    Steve Hoffman
    Executive Director, Norton Center for the Arts, Centre College