Performing in Perfect Harmony

The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra’s Opus Ball, established 39 years ago, is the main fundraising event for the ASO’s statewide education programs. Programs like the ASO String Academy, Youth Ensembles and the Children’s Concert are only possible because of the financial support raised at the annual gala. 

Each year, thousands of students across Arkansas are introduced to music education by the ASO through private and group instrument lessons and demonstrations at their schools.

“Children that participate in music education learn listening, self-discipline, reading, math and the importance of supporting your team,” ASO CEO Christina Littlejohn says. “Building these values in children builds future leaders that make Arkansas a great place to work and live. Music teaches us to pursue excellence through work and supporting those around us.” 

The ASO believes every child should have access to music education, and many of its programs serve schools in low- to moderate-income neighborhoods that might not normally receive that opportunity. Scholarships are available for the String Academy and Youth Ensembles to ensure economic barriers don’t stand in the way of participation. 

“Music education enhances the economic, educational and cultural profile of the state,” says Lindsey Cosio, the ASO event and stewardship director. “ASO alumni are scattered all over the state as high school teachers, band directors, physicians, IT professionals and more — proving time and again the transformational abilities of music education for the students and their communities for this generation and beyond.” 

Opus Ball 2023 co-chair Carlton Saffa says the topic of music education hits close to home. 

“I had a very close relationship with my grandmother. We were sort of kindred spirits,” Carlton says. “She was a music teacher and could play by ear. She was one of the best piano players I’ve ever known, and she could play almost every instrument. And music was always just a part of our life.” 

When deciding whether he had time to commit to being on the ASO board, his wife and co-chair Kristen says she gave him a friendly nudge. 

“I told him this was a great way to honor his grandmother because she did so much. Not only did she teach, but she created school bands and marching bands all over Oklahoma when she was young,” Kristen says. “And I think that’s really cool in that time period for a woman to be doing such great things.” 

The reminder worked and Carlton has been a board member ever since. Carlton, who is the chief market officer for Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff, is excited to add the “Saracen touch” to the Opus Ball this year as the presenting sponsor.

Credit: Jason Masters

“The casino has always tried to be proactive in engaging in community issues,” Carlton says. “Normally we are solicited for contributions, but the ASO is the first one we’ve ever reached out to about giving. We’re trying to bring a little taste, a little flavor of what our brand is into what is already an extraordinary event.” 

Carlton says part of the flavor they’ll provide is Kobe beef and specialty drinks from the casino restaurant. 

“Our food and beverage team has been tremendous in helping with this. We have a lot of financial resources, but our richest resources are the talents we have in our people.” 

Kristen has spent her time planning how to turn the Capitol Hotel into a fall wonderland alongside friend and florist Tanarah Haynie of Tanarah Luxe Floral. Guests will step into a scene of lush fall colors set to music with an “Americana” feel, such as Yo-Yo Ma’s “Goat Rodeo.”

She has also been busy securing auction items and sponsorships, which are critical to the overall fundraising effort. As of early October, the event had already reached 75% of its $500,000 goal, which will go a long way in musical education programming. 

“Music education, undoubtedly, is an incredible component in the development of a child’s brain,” Carlton says. “Exposing people to new things, especially things that we know help them develop, is a good idea. We love to talk about travel and cultures and expanding your horizons, but there are ways you can travel and expand your own horizons simply by exposing yourself to music.” 

For those not attending Opus, but who want to support that exposure, the Simmons Bank Education Challenge is one way for donors to pitch in. Through this challenge, the bank will match every donation dollar for dollar. 

“The education challenge is great because it’s an easy way for anyone to give,” Kristen says. “Even if it’s $10 or $25, that can go toward changing the life of one person who can get lessons for free and continue that love for music.”

Credit: Jason Masters

With a big year of changes and headlines for the ASO, its mission has never been more front of mind. The organization not only named Geoffrey Robson as its new musical director this summer, but it also recently broke ground on the $11.75 million Stella Boyle Smith Music Center, a 22,000-square-foot headquarters that will, among many other things, expand the musical programs currently offered. 

“This new music center will allow these programs to grow, and we can find ways to serve the community in new ways,” Littlejohn says. “We anticipate partnerships with CALS, Saint Mark Baptist Church, recording studios, UAMS and others to serve generations of Arkansans with the joy of music.” 

As for Robson, Kristen thinks he is just the person to lead the ASO into this next chapter. 

“He makes music very approachable, and I think that is so important for something like the symphony,” Kristen says. “It shouldn’t be for just one group of people, and everyone should be able to enjoy it. He’s brought in fun events like the Halloween performance that is so fun. He’s done a good job of opening the symphony to the masses.” 

Read on: Geoffrey Robson Strikes a Chord With the Community

Opus Ball XXXIX
Nov. 4, 6 p.m. | Capital Hotel






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