Since 1961, the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra has been one of the premier musical organizations in the Bluegrass State, exposing generations of Central Kentuckians to some of the greatest concert music ever composed.
And for most of its existence, Somerset’s Dan Harris has been a part of it.
Harris, a retired music teacher and current income tax preparer, has played string bass with the orchestra — with a few brief hiatuses — since the late 1960s. For the last two decades, he’s been in the principal seat, the leader of the section, and has performed with some major names in that time: pianist Andre Watts, violinist Midori Goto, trumpeter Byron Stripling, the Henry Mancini Band, the Brubeck Brothers Quartet, even the great Ray Charles.
But after a year off from the orchestra following the lack of concerts during the COVID-19 period over the last year, Harris is finally taking his final bow with Lexington Philharmonic (LPO).
“With no orchestra from March 2020 on, life was so much calmer and less stressful that I just didn’t want to give that up,” he said. “I’d been playing off and on with LexPhil since 1967 and decided that was long enough.”
Only “stressful” because performances involved nightly trips to Lexington and back, and balancing that time-wise with his full-time career — and because LPO often plays some of the music world’s most challenging pieces. The organization annually plays a full season of great orchestral works, with notable guest performers and a home at the University of Kentucky’s Singletary Center for the Arts. It’s exposed generations to this great music, both in Lexington and in run-outs to other places around the Commonwealth — including Somerset, at The Center for Rural Development. The orchestra plays an important role in enriching the community artistically and ultimately economically as well.
“Music is primal and deeply complex at the same time and is one of the most enduring and expressive marks we leave for future human-kind. It is the most universal and visceral of all communication tools and brings us together, opening our minds and lifting our spirits,” said Allison Kaiser, Executive Director of LPO. “There is something transformative about the power of live orchestral music. Many businesses and individuals will choose a community in which to locate or live based on their cultural offerings and a community that has an established orchestra is one that proves how much it values a culture of creativity, curiosity and beauty. It is a community that understands the essential role that the creation and performance of great music plays in a vibrant life and education system.”
“Nothing can replace the communal experience of listening to beautiful, powerful live orchestral music, when everyone suspends other activities and gives their full attention to the shared experience of listening together,” added Kaiser. “The passion and talent of musicians like (Harris) make it possible for orchestras to hold a special place in communities across the country.”
Within the orchestra, the string bass’ low tones provide the foundation of the music in many ways — “The basses are the basis of the orchestra,” quipped Harris. It’s an important and often unheralded role — one Harris found himself drawn to as a youth by sheer happy accident.
“At the end of my eighth grade year, I was sitting in the Boys General Music Class at the old Central Junior High School in Somerset. Our teacher, Mrs. Tommy Tucker, asked if any of us wanted to learn a new instrument,” he said. “Now at that time, I had played trombone for four years, baritone for two, and tuba for one. I wanted to learn the sousaphone, not realizing that it’s essentially the same instrument as a tuba — it just looks different. Plus, I wasn’t really sure which was the tuba and which was the sousaphone, so I figured if I said ‘street bass,’ an old-timey term for the sousaphone because it was used in street parades, she would know what I meant. So I told her I would like to learn the ‘street bass.’ Not hearing me well and not sure what I said, she said, ‘Did you say STRING bass, Danny?’
“Now at this point it should be said that my parents (Meriel and Thelma Harris) were members of the Columbia Record Club and thus had a lot of good records, including recordings of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, which even as a seventh grader I enjoyed so much I wore the grooves out,” he continued. “His bass player at the time was Norman Bates, and when Mrs. Tucker said ‘String bass?’ I immediately pictured Norman Bates playing with the Brubeck Quartet. I said, ‘Yes, that will be fine!’”
Harris credits late Somerset High School band director Don Stone, a mentor of his, with helping him get started on the bass, as well as the Somerset Civic Orchestra which existed at the time, made up of a mix of adults and private violin students of instructor Arthur Dondero.
“When they played concerts they would bring in Eastern Kentucky University (EKU) string faculty to bolster the orchestra,” said Harris. “The EKU bass and cello teacher, the late great Mr. Lyle Wolfrom, took an interest in me from Day One. He gave me private lessons and a scholarship to EKU, and I was a bass player ever since.”
Harris’ career with the orchestra got off to a serendipitous start. Only a sophomore music student at EKU in 1967, Harris had heard from several sources that the orchestra could use a good bass player like himself. So he found out when the first rehearsal of the season was, loaded up his bass, and headed for Lexington — not realizing as a brash youngster that the process of joining the orchestra was a bit more complicated than just showing up.
“I got to the UK Fine Arts Building, carried my bass down the long hall to the UK Band Room where rehearsals were held at that time, and found the conductor, Mr. Leo Scheer,” said Harris. “Now you must remember that I was an 18-year-old kid from Somerset and knew absolutely nothing of professional orchestra procedure. Thinking what I was doing was perfectly okay, I boldly went up to him and announced ‘Mr. Scheer, you now have a new bass player!’ He was taken aback and said ‘What? What? You can’t just walk in here off the street and play! Why, you have to audition first!’
“Again, in complete ignorance and without the slightest bit of arrogance, I said ‘OK, audition me,’” he added. “So he took me to a side room, put some music in front of me, and told me to play it. I did, and I was in. I started playing with LPO that very night. (By the way, that is NOT the way you join a professional orchestra. Don’t try that at home, boys and girls.)”
Harris played until 1970 before going on to Ohio State for graduate school, where he played with the Columbus Symphony, and later the Kalamazoo Symphony while teaching at Western Michigan University. He returned to LPO in 1975 after moving back to Kentucky, and was let back in by new director George Zack, but dropped out again in 1979 after the birth of his son. He rejoined in 1980 — a situation similar to his LPO origins, where he showed up for practice and had to audition again on the spot — then stopped for awhile after moving to far eastern Kentucky in 1986 (though he joined the Huntington (WV) Symphony there) and was finally back for good after returning to Somerset in 1993.
“I played on the substitute list for a year — got called for every concert — until a spot opened up a year later,” he said. “By this time the quality of the bass players was much better and I had to audition against some really great players, but I won the spot. Played with them ever since.”
A few years later, the veteran was bumped up to the section’s top seat, even though he didn’t think that was in the cards.
“There were many superb bassists in the section who were graduates of the Cincinnati Conservatory and other fine schools, and these guys were practicing a lot every day in hopes of landing a job at a more full time orchestra like New York or Chicago. They didn’t need me as principal, but so many people wanted me to, that I went ahead and auditioned,” said Harris, an admitted perfectionist. “I played badly, so badly that I didn’t even stick around to hear the results. I just headed down the road to Somerset, licking my wounds. Later that evening our personnel manager called me and told me I got the job. I still don’t know how.”
Robert King was the first director of the orchestra and Scheer was Harris’ first, but Zack is the one most who have ever seen the orchestra will associate with it. Termed “the people’s maestro” by the Lexington Herald-Leader arts writer Kevin Nance, Zack had an affable way about him that brought people into the orchestra experience, even if they weren’t die-hard classical fans, and enjoyed taking the LPO out into other communities in the Commonwealth. While Zack, who arrived in 1972, was certainly a talented musician, noted Harris, it’s probably the gift he had for putting welcoming face on the orchestra — not always an easy task — that most stands out to him.
“George was a great people person, a great ‘hail fellow well met,’” said Harris. “He did a lot of the major works that everyone should know — Brahms and Beethoven symphonies, the great piano concerti, etc.”
Zack’s successor, Scott Terrell — who left the orchestra after the 2018-19 season, his tenth; the search for his replacement was interrupted by the COVID ramifications — preferred innovative programming, recalled Harris, and showed unique skill in his role as the man with the baton.
“The best thing about Scott was that he knew how to rehearse, a rare quality among conductors,” said Harris. “Most conductors can tell you what they want but not so much how to achieve that. Scott could always tell you something very precise that you could do that would achieve exactly what he wanted. It was actually kind of amazing.”
His favorite memory of his time with the LPO comes from his very first concert with them, back in 1967. The guest artist was Gary Karr, at that time considered the greatest bassist in the world and a musical idol of Harris’.
“I thought that was so cool that my first ever concert with LexPhil was with Gary Karr,” said Harris. “The main piece he played with us was Paul Ramsier’s ‘Divertimento Concertante on a Theme of Couperin,’ a highly interesting and virtuosic piece. Later when I was at Ohio State, I saw that work in a music store, remembered it from the Karr concert, bought it, and learned it. The next year, Paul Ramsier himself signed on as a Composition Teacher at Ohio State and really liked it that I was working on his piece. He helped me a lot with it and gave me some wonderful insights into the proper interpretation of the piece.”
Some of his favorite performances were of Howard Hanson’s “Romantic Symphony” and Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F — “At one point in the middle of the concert, it just hit me how blessed I was to be able to actually get paid to play such fine music with such fine musicians,” he noted — as well as a new piece by Dave Brubeck’s son Chris called “Open Borders,” with “lots of typically-Brubeck jazz chords and tricky meters, just so much fun to play.”
The music wasn’t the only fun aspect of being part of the LPO, however. Harris also developed friendships and bonds with his fellow musicians that have lasted years and provided a number of fond — and sometimes funny — memories.
“We were playing ‘Aleksander Nevsky’ by Prokofiev. There was a long male chorus section that (fellow bassist Victor Dome) and I decided sounded a lot like parts of the ‘Hunt for Red October’ soundtrack,” he said. “At the end of the week, right in the middle of the Friday night concert, when that male chorus section starts, Victor looks at me, holds up one finger, and says in his best Captain Ramius accent, ‘One ping only, Vasiliy.’ I almost cracked up right in the middle of the concert.”
Playing in the orchestra also served as a good brain exercise for Harris over the years, even as he transitioned out of teaching and into a private career. “A lot of the music is so incredibly complex that is really keeps the brain and reflexes sharp.”
While Harris has likely played his last note with the Lexington Philharmonic — several other veterans of the orchestra are also taking the opportunity to retire coming off of the most unusual last year — he’ll always treasure his memories of getting to play the world’s great music with some of the finest talent in his dear Kentucky home.
“There’s no way you can duplicate the feeling of playing great symphonic works live on stage in front of an audience of 1,500 people,” he said. “And the quality of the wonderful musicians around you just makes the experience even better."