The syncopated gibberish pours out of the sandy-maned man, a pivot point for the action swirling around him, his arms stabbing arcs in the air, face twisting from grimace to grin and back.
“Deet-deet-dee BA-DA!” he scats, snapping his fingers and frame from upright loose to knotted intensity. “Again!”
It’s a Friday night, and most Arkansans are under a different type of lights than the ones illuminating rehearsal on this Maumelle Performing Arts Center stage. It’s been the performance halfway house for the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra while their downtown home Robinson Auditorium is made ready, two years, four months, nine days and $70 million from the day it closed for renovation in 2014.
Or, put another way, precisely 40 days from this moment the symphony orchestra will come in from the desert and enter its musical Promised Land led, as they have been since 2010, by Philip Mann, musical director, the vivacious scat-man parting then calming the sea of sound that deluges his rostrum.
“Well, it’s coming home with friends, it’s coming home with all of the ASO family,” says Mann of the orchestra’s Nov. 12 return to Robinson with the Opus XXXII Gala and its homecoming inaugural concert a week later. “Coming home is always special. Coming home to a new house inside of the Robinson, it couldn’t get any better for us.”
In conversation, Mann is far more tranquil than the manic marionette he evokes in rehearsal and certainly more approachable than the maestro archetype most people think of when they consider a classical conductor. Some of that is age — he’s not yet 40 — and some of it is a personal style that’s more the norm in the orchestral day to day.
“I think the perception of conductors, historically, gives the wrong idea of what the role really is,” he says. “One might think of a conductor as purely providing instructions or dictatorial in nature, but conductors have to be the best listeners. That’s why it’s such a wonderful model for leadership outside of the arts. For me, when you have a great performance and when the conducting is superb, you could have 200 people on stage, but it feels like a conversation between friends.
“Of course, conductors have to provide tremendous leadership and direction, but at the same time, the best conducting is also open to suggestions and possibilities because we have these incredible musicians who all bring their own ideas and perspectives and traditions to the stage.”
The symphony’s mercurial director is but one element of the ASO mystique. How does classical music not only exist, but thrive in the rural wilds of Arkansas as it has for five decades? What draws an internationally trained coterie of musicians to compete fiercely for seats and engenders devoted appreciation by patrons and volunteers alike?
“I would say that we’re certainly not a secret,” Mann says. “We’re getting an increasing amount of national and international attention, and I think our story is a very powerful one.”
Powerful as well as complex. ASO’s back-office operations boast as much talent as its stable of musicians in areas from finance to marketing to recruiting volunteers. As a result, the symphony has been in the black for seven years running, a trend uninterrupted even by performing in its surrogate home — where every concert since December has sold out. It’s a remarkable accomplishment rooted in the quintessential Arkansan pride of place. An iconic ASO bumper sticker perhaps says it best: “It’s MY Symphony.”
“There are numerous worthwhile and great causes that we all need to support, but performing arts organizations such as the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra provide unique experiences typically found only in larger cities,” says Terri Erwin of Little Rock, who’s been volunteering with the symphony since 1989 and has sat on the ASO board for 14 years.
To Erwin and hundreds of others like her, ASO is a musical organization for whom performances are but the shimmering light on the surface of a much deeper well of education, outreach and community. Among its many moving parts, ASO includes a young professionals group (SHARP), maintains a data bank of teacher musicians and provides free classroom companion materials that help school teachers reinforce history and social studies curriculum with period musical pieces.
“The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra enhances the quality of life in our community,” she says. “I strongly believe that a symphony enables our city and state to attract and retain its residents and also people who are considering moving to Little Rock or to our state.”
Perhaps no function of the organization has the potential for more lasting effect than its focus on youth education and performance programs. Starting with “Orchestra and You,” which introduces the concept of a symphony to first-graders, ASO also supports a young artist competition, performs concerts tailored to young people and sponsors a series of progressive ensembles – Preparatory, Prelude and Academy – as well as the capstone Youth Orchestra, which this year featured musicians from 37 Arkansas communities in eighth to 12th grade.
Miriam Hauer-Jensen, 17, has been a member of Youth Orchestra for five of the six years she’s participated in ASO performance programs.
“I’ve enjoyed it for many reasons,” she says. “When I first joined, I was in eighth grade and everyone else was a lot older than me. It was really nice to hear the dedication and the time that they put into practicing. They really inspired me to practice more and become a more dedicated musician.”
Hauer-Jensen’s experiences have included a number of memorable performances and led to other elite ensemble groups, but it has been the socializing aspect of ASO’s program — meeting peers from across the state — that had the most lasting impact. She is interested in a possible future as a teacher, an avenue influenced by what she’s experienced through ASO.
“I’m really glad to live in a place where music is fostered in so many places and so many different ways,” she says. “One of the things about the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra I think is really great is they perform master works and pop. I think it’s really important for younger kids to be exposed to that. One of the main problems is that in some communities they don’t have the opportunity and they aren’t exposed to classical music and so they don’t ever really have a chance to enjoy it.”
Providing the funding for such programs is what the Opus Gala is all about. A red-letter date on Little Rock’s social calendar, Opus is also a fundraising juggernaut, with annual proceeds of almost a half million dollars. Cindy Murphy and her husband Chip are co-chairs for this year’s monumental event.
“Opus XXXII was completely sold out by July 1; the response has been overwhelming,” Cindy says. “This is hoped to be an extraordinary evening for the lucky ASO supporters who committed to sponsorships, patron tables and patron tickets before July. We expect 520 Opus guests this year, which is the largest Opus Ball in recent years.”
Murphy says of all the charitable work she’s been involved with, ASO ranks near the top of the list for the many benefits it brings to the community and for the future musicians and patrons its programs nurture.
“It is crucial to introduce our children to a world filled with beautiful artistic experiences, as they will ultimately become our future leaders in the arts,” she says. “Children become better students when they are exposed to the arts. Their grades improve as their minds explore creatively, enriching their educational experiences.
“We raise money at Opus, which continues to provide the financial resources to enrich the Youth Orchestra’s musical learning adventure. The entire community is benefited as we support programs that raise young artists and keep the arts alive with our younger generation.”
When: Nov. 12 | Where: The Robinson Center | Tickets & Info: ArkansasSymphony.org