Loving The Classics



By Free Weekly Staff

Live symphonic music is returning to Northwest Arkansas. The Arkansas Philharmonic Orchestra will make its Fayetteville debut Friday, filling a void left last year by the closing of Northwest Arkansas’ two professional orchestras.

Although some of the players are the same — many of the musicians were members of the now defunct North Arkansas Symphony Orchestra and the Benton County Civic Orchestra — the new orchestra is doing some things differently.

The 12-member board that oversees the operation of the new orchestra wants to keep ticket prices low to attract new fans and to encourage parents to bring the family. They have also come up with ways to keep the overhead in check.

APO’s first performance was a free performance. But it paid off of the orchestra. Donations collected at the concert were enough to mount the Fayetteville concert, the orchestra’s first classical performance. It also sent a message to the musicians that the community wants what they have to offer. The 1,200-seat Arend Art Center in Bentonville was standing-room-only for the free Valentine’s Day pops concert. 

“We did it (the free concert) because we love what we do,” said Miles Fish, APO conductor and artistic director. “We did it to show people we’re here. We were flattered that people wanted to hear us. We thought that we were well-received and that gave us energy to keep going.”

For the first concert the orchestra had 57 musicians. For the Friday performance there will be 67 musicians. Fish explained that the number of musicians can vary, based on the requirements of the particular programs. The Fayetteville show, will feature more complex and “serious” music, Fish said. 

NWA’s Orchestral History

The APO was founded last fall, a few months after the North Arkansas Symphony announced that it was in financial ruin and the lesser-known Benton County Civic Orchestra, which was conducted by Fish, folded because of “problems with fundraising.”

The death of the NASO, for the most part, went unnoticed in the media. The orchestra that had been operating on an annual budget of more than a half million dollars, had to cancel its spring concert. 

When last spring’s concert was canceled, NASO music director and conductor Jeannine Wagar said that sponsorships were down, but that she held hope that the orchestra would recover. That never happened and the vivacious conductor who brought a little bit of New York to the Ozarks quietly exited without fanfare. 

Wagar, who came to NWA from New York, doubled the funding for the symphony over a four-year period. The Walton Arts Center management handled NASO’s finances until it handed the job back to the NASO short before the orchestra folded. 

In her eight seasons with the symphony, Wager tried to woo new audiences by stepping outside the box. She brought in cutting edge talent for special performances to the dismay of some NASO supporters who felt the orchestra should stick strictly to the classics. A handful of orchestral members were bitterly critical of Wagar.

Wagar brought the New York ensemble Bang on a Can to NWA for a residency and performance with the orchestra. The orchestra backed Cirque de Eloise during its NWA residency. Wagar collaborated with former Hollywood composer and filmmaker, Robert Emenegger on three “Night at the Movies” orchestral presentations that featured film clips from classic and contemporary films.

But Wagar’s classical programs were also strong. She brought in classical music heavy hitters such as Miles Hoffman, Piotr Janowski and Sarah Chang, as well as new opera projects. She also created several educational programs for children including commissioning a new work by composer Eleanor Hovda who worked with local children to create a piece for children that the NASO premiered.

The NASO has a history that dates back to the 1950’s when University of Arkansas music professors established an orchestra with financial support from the UA. In the ’80s, a few community members started a fundraising effort to establish a professional orchestra. In 1988, the orchestra became a non-profit entity. UA educators were a part of the NASO then and have continued to be involved in the NASO and now in the APO. 

The Benton County Civic Orchestra was founded in 2001 and was in operation for seven years with Fish conducting. Fish said he thought one of the reasons the BCCO did not survive was that it limited itself to Benton County. 

The new orchestra is clearly splitting its allegiance between Benton and Washington Counties. Five additional concerts are proposed for the 2009-10 season, two at the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville and three at Arend Arts Center in Bentonville. 

“We think we have doubled our territory for ticket sales and sponsorships,” Fish said. 

Putting It Together

Fish is not new to NWA. He has taught at Northwest Arkansas Community College and served as the music director for the First United Methodist Church in Bentonville for almost 12 years. At NWACC, he teaches music theory, voice, basis musicianship, site singing, music appreciation and the history of rock ‘n roll. He also conducts various college ensembles.

Although dedicated to “serious classical music,” Fish is a laid-back individual. He said he would not take offense, should new audiences not understand proper orchestra etiquette and refrain from applauding before the end of a piece. 

Fish was not involved in the initial discussions about the formation of the APO. He said that last fall, 17 musicians got together to talk about creating a regional orchestra. After they decided to pursue the project, they called him and asked him to conduct. 

Recruitment for the orchestra was mostly by word of mouth and even thought there was no promise of money, the musicians were eager to give it a try, hoping to someday be paid for their time. 

“We knew we had players,” Fish said. “We knew we had good players.”

Musicians often play with more than one orchestra. Fish said that many of those who have and currently perform in NWA also perform with orchestras in Fort Smith and Tulsa, Okla. 

In addition to performing, Fish and others involved in the APO want to introduce classical music to the schools. Fish said that many of the musicians involved in the APO were first introduced to classical music by visiting ensembles that performed at their schools. 

“Most of us are involved in music because somebody came and played for us (at school),” Fish said. “Our first exposure to instruments and classical music was at school. Many of us are teachers, so education is important to us.”

A string quartet made of up members of the orchestra has already done performances at area schools. 

The APO is managed by its board and is a 501(c)3. And although the enthusiasm of the musicians is high, there is still the finances and the business side of the orchestra.

“It’s an expensive endeavor,” Fish said. 

Musicians are traditionally paid for their rehearsal time and their performance time. So for example, when there are six rehearsals prior to a performance and 65 musicians must be paid for seven “services,” the dollar figures quickly add up. If the 65 musicians are paid $35 for seven “services”, the cost of the talent alone is almost $16,000 for the one performance. And then there are other costs like venue rental, advertising and expenses that most businesses have. 

But the APO board is operating on a shoestring and has come up with ways to cut corners. Because many of the orchestra members teach at area schools, the orchestra rehearses in school band rooms, which saves money for rehearsal space rental. 

“We had a plan on how this would work,” Fish said. “We would work for free on the first concert … basically to jump start the program. What we made on it would pay for the next one.” 

The theory worked. Although the first concert was free, the orchestra asked for and received donations that were enough to pay musicians for the second concert. 

The Fayetteville Debut 

Fish is excited about the Friday night concert at the Walton Arts Center. He is enthused about the talent and the program. The major part of the program is “From the New World,” Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor. Fish said this is the piece that “gave America its voice.” 

Dvorak, a Czech, was brought to America (the New World) in the late 1800s to head the National Conservatory of Music. Dvorak proposed that American composers stop copying European music and borrow from African American spirituals and Native American melodies. These influences are apparent in Dvorak’s ninth symphony, which has become the most performed symphony that was composed in the U.S., Fish said.

“It is a perfect program for someone who has not been exposed to symphonic music,” Fish said. “The melodies are catchy, emotional and moving and (the piece) is beloved worldwide.”

Fish also praised the orchestra. “The orchestra is so good the audience will not be disappointed in the quality.”

Also on the program are Beethoven’s Egmont Overture and J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. A Baroque ensemble of three violins, three violas, three cellos, a harpsichord and a bass will perform the Bach concerto. 

The concert is 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Walton Arts Center. Tickets are $15 general and $5 students.

Categories: Features