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University of Kentucky Symphony wows Chinese audiences with American music

The University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra returned to Lexington this week after a 14-day concert tour in China, where its performances received warm receptions.

Skip Gray, director of the UK school of music, called the trip "a huge success."

"The students played beautifully. They performed in great performance halls. Wherever we went we were well received. I can't imagine it being much better," Gray said.

The 78-member orchestra played in premier concert venues in Shanghai, Yangzhou, Hangzhou and Tianjin. The tour ended at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing, where the orchestra played to a practically sold out audience in the 1,600-seat concert hall.

In addition to the tour, the school of music is working to establish several other collaborative programs with Chinese universities and music conservatories.

Conductor John Nardolillo said he had wanted to take the UK orchestra on an international tour for several years. "It's something all the top schools do. It is important for a variety of reasons," he said.

An orchestra plays so much better when it travels, he said. "They have to play concerts, night after night, when they travel to different cities and have to play when they're tired. They become more focused."

After the fourth concert, in the city of Tianjin, Nardolillo said, "I'm thrilled at how well the students have played, thrilled at how receptive the audiences have been, and how large the audiences have been. We've had great attendance everywhere."

Several student musicians who ranged from freshmen to doctoral students had never been out of the United States. "The students are coping so well. I haven't seen anyone close to a meltdown and this is a rigorous trip," said Karen Bottge, UK music professor.

Audiences varied in how much they had heard orchestras play classical music.

Most people at the Shanghai Oriental Arts Centre were experienced concert-goers. The next evening the orchestra performed at the Yangzhou Concert Hall where the city does not have an orchestra. "Many in the audience had never heard an orchestra before," Nardolillo said. When the last note sounded, the orchestra received long, enthusiastic applause.

"Anytime you play for an audience that reacts so enthusiastically and passionately, you know you have communicated with people on a very basic level," Nardolillo said. "It's even more amazing when it's with people who do not share the same language or culture. That's what's incredible about music."

Music that Nardolillo selected for the tour was by American composers Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, Samuel Barber and George Gershwin. As an encore each night, the orchestra played a brisk rendition of Stars and Stripes Forever by John Philip Sousa, which started audiences clapping.

In Hangzhou, after Stars and Stripes Forever, the audience kept applauding until Nardolillo returned to the stage and asked, "Shall we do it again?" Yes, the audience indicated. The orchestra played the piece again.

At the end of each concert, youngsters and adults gathered in front of the stage to have pictures taken with the UK musicians. Others waited at the stage door, like groupies waiting for a rock band to come out.

Concertmaster Jessica Miskelly said she didn't feel like a celebrity, but she was delighted that the orchestra was so well received.

The orchestra received at least three invitations to return to China, including one from the Shanghai Oriental Arts Centre, a second at the National Performing Arts Centre in Beijing, as well as one to play in a music festival in November.

The earliest another tour could be arranged would be 2014, said Gray. Taking more than 80 people halfway around the world is no small undertaking.

"We can't put a trip like this together overnight. It takes months of planning," he said. "If we don't plan, we fail ourselves and we fail our students. That's why we have to be careful about last minute invitations."

The trip included 78 members of the UK Symphony Orchestra, conductor Nardolillo, music professor Karen Bottge, Gray and four friends of the orchestra.

Gray attributed much of the success to Nardolillo's planning. "John pays incredible attention to detail, both from a music standpoint and from an organizational standpoint," he said. Nardolillo planned the trip in cooperation with Classical Movements, travel specialists for musical groups.

The cost was $5,000 per person. Students paid $1,900 each; the music department picked up the difference from its endowment fund and donations. Faculty and friends each paid the full $5,000.

Gray is working to put together several initiatives between UK and the Arts Academy of Inner Mongolia in Hohhot. One program would allow students from the University of Inner Mongolia to study at UK, with the possibility of earning a bachelor's degree.

This fall music students from the Arts Academy of Inner Mongolia will be in Lexington to take part in a week-long festival of traditional songs and dances from Inner Mongolia. The UK orchestra will present a concert featuring Chinese students as soloists. In 2015, UK students will present a similar festival in Hohhot.