It’s electric. You ascend the Robinson Center’s grand staircase, surrounded by the enthusiastic buzzing of guests filing in to find their seats. The volume of the performance hall crowd climbs to an eager, dull roar when suddenly, the lights dim, all chatter stops and all focus is on a stage filled with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra.
If you ask Susan and Herren Hickingbotham of Hickingbotham Investments, long-time patrons and chairs of this year’s Opus Ball, the spectacle is one of the elements that fuels their passion for the ASO. It’s an unrivaled experience.
That is, unless you ask Geoffrey Robson. The ASO associate conductor and music director for the ASO Youth Ensembles will tell you that there is nothing like walking into a room full of spirited and determined high school students with instruments at the ready.
“I live for the energy in the room when all the students are present,” Robson says, “even if it is just a rehearsal.”
In Good Measure
The education department supports four student orchestras: the Preparatory Orchestra, the Prelude Orchestra, the Academy Orchestra and the most advanced of the four, the Arkansas Symphony Youth Orchestra, which Robson conducts.
The ASYO consists of kids in grades 8-12 who gain top honors at statewide competitions, who commit to near weekly rehearsals and who study and learn symphonic music the caliber of that which professional orchestras play.
“It requires a constantly improving technique, but also requires the kids to develop listening skills, leadership skills, self-confidence and mental stamina,” Robson says.
“It’s an incredible transformation,” he adds of the youth orchestra’s effect on its members. “Most of these students are involved in a wide variety of activities, but I believe they approach everything they do with better focus and imagination, as well as collaborative ability and experience, after they have played in a large musical ensemble such as this.”
And while the Hickingbothams may enjoy the rise of the curtain and the opening chord, it’s that transformative nature of the ASO education department that brings them back to Opus year after year, and back to the roles of chairpersons after leading the charge a decade ago.
“We’ve always been impressed with the youth orchestras and what an amazing group of young people they are, how talented they are, how gifted they are and how they really do make an impact on the ASO,” Herren says. “That’s what lead us to get involved with the symphony and Opus more than 10 years ago.”
Their admiration is clear. When a handful of ASYO musicians move through the room, the Hickingbothams stop in their tracks to address them. The two beam as they express their enthusiasm and respect for the musicians, heaping on words of encouragement and gratitude, which are met with large smiles and shuffling feet.
Each year, the Opus Ball raises funds for education and outreach for Arkansas students, particularly through the annual Education Challenge, where guests make on-the-spot donations to the cause.
On average, Opus brings in approximately $300,000 for these programs, helping provide things like instruments for students who don’t have them, lessons for those who need assistance and scholarships to pay for musical camps.
The 2017 event, titled Opus Ball XXXIII, comes with the theme “Arkansas’ Finest.” Guests will sit down to a feast featuring the dishes of four local culinary icons: Payne Harding, Tim Morton and Evette Brady of Cache Restaurant, and famed restaurateur Denis Seyer. Silent and live auctions and the Education Challenge will be accompanied by the sounds of more than 200 ASYO musicians, local duet Wine and Roses and finally the Rodney Block Band.
“What we hope is that we can give people a better appreciation of the importance and the talent of our youth orchestras, and why it’s so vital to support them,” Herren says.
Moving to the Beat
by the Numbers*
and instrument petting zoos
Guest artist residencies
Solo bedside visits to
Arkansas Children’s Hospital
*Children impacted through
during 2016-2017 fiscal year.
Through its various programs, the ASO education department reached more than 21,000 children from July 2016 to June 2017 alone. Ensembles take shape not only through the youth orchestras — which Robson likens to “an intense summer camp interwoven throughout the school year” — but also through programs like the Sturgis Music Academy. Created for inner-city kids within the Little Rock School District, the academy’s mission is to “[develop] confidence, creative thinking and a general work ethic” for students to employ in every undertaking, musical or not.
Along with student musician programs, the ASO also offers outreach opportunities such as children’s concerts, string quartet demonstrations that travel to classrooms across the state and an instrument introduction program called Orchestra and You that’s free for schools in Pulaski County.
“There is no other youth music program in the state that has the intellectual resources and high level of professionalism and experience of the ASO supporting it,” Robson says. “We are able to give our students exposure to world-class artists from Arkansas and all over the world because of our community connections.”
One of the newest endeavors of the education department is Bucket Band, which the ASO launched in July. The class focuses on percussion and rhythm fundamentals as students pound away on giant plastic buckets.
At the end of one session, one student excitedly inquired about the next lesson, “Will it have a cool beat like the one we learned today?” That “cool beat” was the William Tell Overture.
The exposure and enrichment the ASO offers kids across the state is uncommon, stretching beyond cultural, geographic and socioeconomic barriers to provide musical experiences where opportunities are scarce.
For the Hickingbothams, one of the most interesting connections is the bond between ASO musicians and ASYO musicians.
“When the youth orchestras get to perform with the full orchestra, that’s an inspiration because they’re really playing with their mentors,” Herren says. “There’s motivation, there’s encouragement, there’s validation that all the hard work is paying off, and that goes for the children and the adults. It’s amazing to watch.”
As a new crop of students rolls in each year, Barbara Burroughs, the director of education and outreach, recites this mantra to parents: “Each and every child in each and every group is extraordinary, and behind every child in every seat, there is an extraordinary story of success, not only in music, but in their schools and their communities.”
And as many of those students one day take the stage as professional musicians in front of their own eager crowds, oh, what stories they will tell.
Opus Ball XXXIII: Arkansas’ Finest will be held on Saturday, Nov. 11 at 6 p.m. at the Robinson Center. Tickets + Info: ArkansasSymphony.org