George Zack studied the score in his dressing room before he conducted the Lexington Philharmonic in Handel's Messiah at the Singletary Center for the Arts Dec. 14, 2007. This was the last time Zack conducted Messiah, which he calls "Man's masterpiece". Photo by Charles Bertram | LexGo.
Also read: George Zack, by the numbers
When George Zack came to Lexington in 1972, he was told that he might want to bring some books.
Yes, he was going to be the conductor of the Lexington Philharmonic. But they had only a handful of concerts, and other than those, he might need to find some ways to occupy his time.
Zack will lay down his baton for the last time Friday night in a far different Lexington and arts community, which he had a hand in creating.
Certainly, Lexington was not bereft of cultural offerings before Zack arrived. Studio Players, the Lexington Singers, Lexington Children’s Theatre and other groups were all going concerns.
Since 1972, the Lexington arts community has risen steadily from indigenous enterprises to a fairly professional profile, and the Philharmonic has led much of the way.
A key component of the growth was Zack as a charismatic leader and proponent of the arts. In 1990, Herald-Leader arts writer Kevin Nance dubbed Zack “the people’s maestro,” based on his observation that Zack could be a controversial figure in the orchestra and among musicians, but he always enjoyed unwavering support from the audience.
That’s because he never forgot the audience.
That might sound like a no-brainer: If you are going to put on a show, you want people to come, so you try to make things accessible for them. But that idea often flew past classical musicians and conductors in the mid- to late 20th century, when “if you play it, they will come” was a reliable marketing strategy. There was still a substantial audience raised on the classics, particularly in urban areas, and they turned out to make orchestras and conductors in large and mid-size American cities household names.
But when Zack came to Lexington, he took the baton for a still-growing orchestra looking for its voice. A native of Pine Bluff, Ark., Zack had a natural rapport with his audience and built on that, from his stage patter between pieces to his public profile as a spokesman for the Philharmonic and other area arts concerns, including Kentucky Educational Television and his membership in various boards and groups.
Zack made the Philharmonic accessible by being accessible. The traditional Toscanini profile of a conductor was that of an imperious man whom you probably would prefer not to meet on the street. With Zack, you might have run into him riding his bike near his home.
Musically, he took the Phil on a non-traditional route to popularity.
Several of the conductors who came in to audition for Zack’s job last year commented that Lexington was a bit unusual in that its MasterClassics concerts, performances that largely focus on mainstays of the symphonic canon, are its bread and butter, not pops concerts. Many orchestras enjoy their greatest success at pops concerts, which help support the classical programming. Recent pops programming by the Philharmonic has struggled, and the orchestra suspended pops concerts during the conductor search that started last fall.
But Zack has taken the lead on events that have given the Philharmonic a larger stage, even a large television audience once a year.
The Kentucky Christmas Chorus, held each year at Rupp Arena and broadcast on WKYT and WYMT-TV, was conceived by Alice Baesler — wife of then-Mayor Scotty Baesler — in 1988, and it was executed by Zack. Picnic With the Pops was conceived by former Mayor Jim Amato as a sort of civic event that was embraced by a wide audience. An after wandering around downtown Lexington for several years, the Philharmonic’s annual Fourth of July concert at the steps of Transylvania University’s Old Morrison Building was established.
So the Philharmonic hasn’t excelled at creating a pops series, but it does have a trio of popular concerts that have raised the orchestra and Zack’s profile in Central Kentucky.
Over the years, Zack has had a hand in other groups, conducting for Lexington Musical Theatre while it existed, Lexington Ballet and the Central Kentucky Youth Orchestras. He now gives the Lexington Singers two of its biggest concerts each year with Messiah in December and a choral masterwork in April. There are other involvements and affiliations that get lost in 36 years, and there’s that old saw about a rising tide lifting all ships.
At the Phil, the budget has grown from $55,000 to more than $1 million annually, and the orchestra’s schedule has grown from maybe a half-dozen or so shows to more than 150 concerts a year. When the orchestra plays out in the state, the presenters want Zack. In Lexington, his profile rose high enough that an intersection was named after him and the late historian Thomas D. Clark — signs designating the intersection of Main and Limestone streets as such were taken down during construction several years ago and have not been replaced — and he has won most of the state’s major arts awards, including a Governor’s Award in the Arts.
The Lexington Philharmonic is searching for a new face of its organization, and in a way, Lexington is looking for a new face of the arts. Who knows what corner that icon might come from, but with his tenure at the Phil, Zack has made Lexington’s cultural community richer and much busier.