In a corner table at Cheers in The Heights on a rainy Wednesday afternoon, Elizabeth Andreoli and Debi Barnes glow with excitement. Papers and notebooks are strewn across the table as each nurses a glass of white wine, pouring over every last detail of this year's Opus Ball XXXIV, the annual gala hosted by the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra.
This dynamic duo, as the two have dubbed themselves, are finishing each other's sentences at this point, continuing each other's train of thought and filling in holes in each other's elevator pitches. The seemingly perfect yin to the other's yang, when asked about the event, the two chairs blurt out at the same time, "It's going to be so much fun!"
But apart from the glamorous event held in the Little Rock Marriott grand ballroom alongside the Arkansas River, the deep-seated love Barnes and Andreoli hold for the symphony shines through all the glitz of a 34-year-old soirée.
For Barnes, it began in her hometown of Russellville where she was determined to study classical music and play the piano.
"My parents couldn't afford a piano, but they bought one on an installment plan for me," Barnes says. "My mother made sure I got to attend community concerts in town — some of which I loved and some I thought were boring — but I learned to appreciate music. My mother understood, and now I understand, how important it is for children to be exposed to that."
Andreoli's love of classical music is in her blood. ("Oh, she wins," Barnes pipes up, "her story is way better.") Though she doesn't play an instrument, her father, a first-generation Swede, came from a family of violin makers. He labored over layers of varnish to restore violins, passing down a passion for its sound to his seven children.
"On Sunday mornings we would always wake up to the smell of coffee and eggs and booming classical music, with my dad in the kitchen making breakfast," Andreoli laughs. "He loved classical. He never even played the contemporary music from his era — Frank Sinatra, The Rat Pack, none of that — it was all classical and opera."
Fast forward a few decades and their affection for the sound remains a compass for their commitment to the good works the ASO is sowing within the community.
Incorporated in 1966, the ASO is the most-recognized classical music organization in the state, playing to more than 165,000 Arkansans every year. The broad range of programming featuring everything from Beethoven to the theme of Princess Leia is enough for the ASO the stand as a major contributor to the arts in the state. But that, despite common misconception, is not at the core of Opus.
Opus, as always, exists to support the symphony's music education efforts for children across Arkansas. The ASO hosts a laundry list of education and outreach programs, including demonstrations and "informances" in schools, community engagement performances and the prestigious Arkansas Symphony Youth Orchestra (the only one of its kind in central Arkansas), serving a combined 25,000 students each year.
"Musical training teaches you discipline, confidence, stamina," Andreoli says. "It rewires the brain in ways we don't completely understand and makes children more apt to be successful in whatever they do."
Funds from Opus events in recent years helped establish the Sturgis Music Academy, a program for students pursuing high-quality musical education with a focus on violin, and now cello as well. Through weekly group and private lessons, the academy strives to help students develop confidence, creative thinking and work ethics that it hopes will translate across all musical and non-musical aspects of their lives. Through fundraisers like Opus, the Sturgis Music Academy was recently able to expand its programs, adding five more schools to its list of partners in central Arkansas.
"The purpose of the money we raise for Opus is to expose and educate children to music throughout the state, reaching the disadvantaged and putting music into the lives of these kids who might not have had that opportunity otherwise," Barnes says.
"This is something so simple, but that so many don't have in their homes," Andreoli adds, "and if it connects with them, it's transformative."
The two recall a planning retreat with their fellow ASO board members where the question was raised of the first time they truly appreciated music. Without exception, every response echoed the same: Whether from their family or church or school, they all learn to appreciate music as a child.
And while countless studies note improved test scores after exposure to music and other arts classes for children, that cognitive tipping point also rings true at both bookends of life, especially for Barnes.
"My mother has Alzheimer's and she can't remember a lot of things, but if I sit down at the piano and start playing music from her era, she can sing every word to every song," Barnes says. "Music plays such a crucial role throughout our entire lives. Think about it: How many of us first heard the 'William Tell Overture' from Bugs Bunny?"
To say 2018 has been unusual for the Arkansas arts community would be a stern understatement. In little less than four months' time, three pillars of the state's arts presence announced major shakeups: The Arkansas Repertory Theatre suspended operations, the Arkansas Arts Center's executive director Todd Herman resigned and the symphony's music director and conductor Philip Mann listed the upcoming season as his last, taking on the title of Music Director Laureate (a first for the ASO) and leaving the conductor's baton up for grabs.
These three organizations, along with Ballet Arkansas, serve as the lifeblood of the state's visual and performing arts community, leaving no surprise that patrons' heads were spinning by the end of July. Barnes and Andreoli, however, have put their unease to rest.
"We really hate to see Philip go because he is a true master of his craft. He's brilliant and really helped take the symphony to another level," Andreoli says. "However, I was on the board through [former music director David Itkin] leaving and something I learned in that process was that there are many talented people who would love to come direct the ASO. I'm not nervous in regards of finding a new conductor, but we're taking our time in the process."
How You Can Help the ASO
• Attend a concert
• Talk to your kid's school about bringing in ASO programs
• Donate to the Opus Education Challenge (even if you don't go to Opus)
• Get your company to sponsor an event
• Donate instruments you no longer use
• Book youth orchestra musicians to play your social event
For Barnes, who works in merger acquisition and rebranding for DD&F Consulting Group, dealing with these types of transitions is second nature.
"What I've found is that change can be scary, but change can also be positive and energizing," she says. "That's what I'm hoping this will be for The Rep and for the Arts Center and for the symphony. Change is good.
"It's important for Little Rock and Arkansas to have these institutions that are top-notch, which is what we have. The closing of The Rep was a wake-up call to a lot of people that you can't just take these things for granted. We need to understand the importance of the arts not only enriching people's lives, but how important they are to our community to thrive and to grow. It's time to step up to the plate and get involved. Sure, we'd love for you to be a major sponsor or buy a ticket to Opus, but you don't have to do that to help."
Any organization that relies on philanthropy can give you a long list of challenges when it comes to drawing people in, but when you're dealing in a currency that some classify as timeless and others label as dated, the problems compound.
With a donor base saturated by baby boomers and with successful programming in many Arkansas schools, the issue now becomes how to reach the masses in the middle ground.
For the ASO, that means dreaming up new ways to get people in the door, whether that be through the young professionals group Sharp, the Pops Live! concert series featuring "The Music of Star Wars" later this month or Entergy Kids Tickets that allow K-12 students to see a Sunday performance for free with the purchase of an adult ticket.
The biggest hurdle for the ASO, however, is overcoming the stigma that the symphony is, well …
"Just for rich, stuffy people!" Barnes says.
"Highbrow!" Andreoli adds.
"Old!" Barnes exclaims.
The two squirm at the thought of would-be audiences missing out simply because they never gave it a chance. To combat that, Barnes and Andreoli are dead-set on showing people just how fun the symphony can be, starting with this year's masquerade-themed "Mystical. Musical. Masqued. Opus!" The night includes performances by the Arkansas Symphony Youth Orchestra and the Rodney Block Band, along with a menu crafted by Chef David Utley of Heritage Grille Steak and Fin. As an added flair, this year's Opus is "full of girl power" says Barnes, with emcee Dawn Scott of KTHV and auctioneer Shannon Hunter taking the stage.
As Barnes and Andreoli sip their glasses in their corner table, the air around them is thick with tangible and contagious excitement. At the end of the day, this dynamic duo knows the ball they're chairing is just the opening act to the main event, a lifelong celebration of music, of beauty manifest, and everyone is invited.
Meet Opus Performer Pat Becker
Pat Becker has done it all: author, singer, animal rights activist, dog trainer, actress (including roles in the iconic “Batman” series of the '60s). A recent Oklahoma City transplant, Becker will perform a jazz set during dinner at this year's Opus Ball. Here, get to know the woman behind the talent before the big night.
A common topic of conversations surrounding the ASO is the misconception that the symphony is stodgy or old-fashioned. Can you speak to that notion?
People have this image of the symphony that since it was established a long time ago and represents a classical feeling that it stayed that way. But music is an adventure. Jazz doesn't follow the script, just like rock, just like hip-hop. The ASO is trying to get everyone excited about all kinds of music. We can all feel the beat, we can all understand that enthusiasm, it's what connects us.
Tell us about the Concert Grand Steinway D you recently donated to the symphony.
The piano is the basic instrument to every symphony, you can't complete a musical group without it. When I found out the symphony was having to rent pianos when noteworthy pianists came into town because theirs wasn't up to par, I made it my project. It's a necessity. My hope is these pianists will work their magic on an instrument that will embellish their talent.
Having only lived here a year, can you tell us with fresh eyes why an organization like the ASO is important to the community?
It's all about education. Having knowledge of the world around you and what it can bring to your life is eye-opening. The ASO works so hard to expose people to music that enriches us, and not just for a certain group of people, for all people. Their mission is pure, their goal is right. Visually, musically, this town is alive because of these things.
What can guests expect from your appearance at Opus?
Rex Bell and I are performing pieces from our new album "Feel the Love." Every song is exciting, it's a great example of jazz and really shows what Rex and I can do. Rex is the most fantastic, spontaneous jazz pianist I've ever worked with. It brings me such joy and I hope I can bring that same joy to the Opus audience.
Opus Ball XXXIV
Oct. 27 | 6 p.m. | Little Rock Marriott
Tickets + Info: 501.666.1761, ArkansasSymphony.org