A four-year national search for a music director led the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra back to one of its own. Geoffrey Robson, who has served many roles within the orchestra, was a natural choice to guide the ASO into its 58th season.
“It’s basically unheard of for a music director to come from within, but Geoffrey was the perfect person for the job. He is so ingrained in the central Arkansas community and is beloved by everyone who meets him,” ASO Event and Stewardship Director Lindsey Cosio says.
For Robson, music has been an integral part of his life since childhood. He took piano lessons from a young age and soon added violin, which became his primary instrument. While his parents weren’t musicians, they were teachers who understood the importance of continual learning and practice in order to succeed.
“I got super involved in marching band, orchestra, jazz band and choir. I did all the things,” Robson says. “I didn’t really plan to go into music necessarily, but I discovered there were nice scholarships to college available.”
He went on to major in violin performance at Michigan State University and obtained a master’s degree from Yale University following his undergraduate studies. He landed in New York City after graduate school, where he freelanced as a violinist and did some conducting as well. This path led him to a new orchestra in the city called the Chelsea Symphony. Then in 2008, an opportunity down south presented itself.
“I found out about a position with the Arkansas orchestra that was for a full-time violinist and involved playing in a string quartet and traveling around the state doing outreach. It would allow me to conduct a lot of concerts with the orchestra as well,” Robson says.
Southern life was foreign to Robson, but he packed his bags and made the move to Arkansas.
“It was a learning experience,” he says. “But over the time I’ve been here, Little Rock has really transformed and developed its own vibe. I really like being part of the community.”
Outside of his work with the ASO, Robson directs the Faulkner Chamber Music Festival in the summer and plays in a string quartet with three of his colleagues.
“I am passionate about imparting knowledge to students as well. We have a student string quartet where each of us has a private student to mentor, and it’s just a delightful project. We get to coach them, and they get to see us working together.”
Robson enjoys attending theater productions and other performing arts in the city and is big on the food scene. He self-identifies as a “SoMa junkie,” naming Raduno Brick Oven & Barroom and The Root Cafe as two of his favorite restaurants in town. He boasts his own food scene with an impressive garden he tends with his fiancé Kristen and their cat Naji.
“Gardening requires a real consistency, so I find its requirements to be grounding in a metaphorical and physical way,” Robson says.
It’s been a great way to build community, he says, to meet neighbors and share food with others. As the new musical director, Robson looks forward to creating community through music, too.
“I love putting together shows that showcase the entire community,” Robson says. “Those are often the shows that people around the city remember and talk about later. They’ll come up and say, ‘My kid was on stage with you,’ and that’s so special.”
When he served as artistic director during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Robson proved his creativity and community focus could lead a transition during a difficult time. He designed innovative programs that reached more than one million music fans around the world, including the online Bedtime with Bach series that was featured in The Washington Post and on “The Kelly Clarkson Show.”
Robson credits teamwork.
“I was extraordinarily lucky to be surrounded by a brilliant team. We knew people were feeling desperately alone, they had been laid off and many musicians who work for themselves weren’t able to perform,” Robson says. “The first thing we did was a ton of virtual teaching, and that was gratifying because we were able to give a product to students when they couldn’t even go to school.”
His leadership and the support of the Arkansas community allowed the symphony to continue to employ its full-time musicians and staff throughout 2020 and 2021.
“Geoff exudes joy when communicating about music through his words, his violin, his baton and his smile,” ASO CEO Christina Littlejohn says.
The ASO recently broke ground on its new $11.75 million Stella Boyle Smith Music Center in the East Village neighborhood, and Robson is excited about the opportunities it will bring for the ASO and the ample space it provides for programs like the ASO String Academy, Youth Ensembles, children’s concerts and community orchestras.
“We have all these things we’ve always dreamed about, and now we have a space to do it and in a location that is visible to the community and accessible in every sense of the word. It is poised to be a true hub for musical activity in Arkansas,” Robson says.
The new facility will hopefully lead to even larger participation in early music education.
“Music is the ultimate activity for the growth of a child in so many ways,” he says. “It’s physical and requires very intricate and technical coordination. It’s intellectual in that it teaches you how to analyze something you’re looking at and relate it to something you are translating it into. It’s creative. And perhaps most importantly, it’s social and contributes to behavioral growth in a very meaningful way.”
To Robson, music is a unique language he shares with his fellow orchestra members. Like with his gardening, he hopes to cultivate and share that experience across the state, reaching areas that perhaps haven’t been fostered yet.
“The ASO has new corners of the community to connect with, and we can become even more deeply embedded in the community, get more people coming to the concerts and change lives through the power of music.”
Read about the Opus Ball benefitting the ASO here.