The Band’s Back Together

The Band’s Back Together

Fort Smith Symphony plans socially distanced season


As he does every spring, John Jeter, music director of the Fort Smith Symphony, announced the upcoming 2020-21 season. But then the covid-19 crisis got worse instead of better. Not just orchestras but arts organizations of every kind closed down or took their offerings online.

That is not what Jeter, his musicians and his board decided to do. The Fort Smith Symphony will open its season with a pops concert Oct. 17, outdoors at the U.S. Marshals Museum, and continue with a slate of five subsequent performances at the ArcBest Performing Arts Center.

Of course, Jeter knows it’s all subject to the whims of a virus no one really understands. But it is his considered opinion that people need music more than ever in the midst of a pandemic, and he’s invested months since covid-19 hit the River Valley figuring out how to deliver.

“It was a lot of work,” he says simply. “We put health and safety absolutely first — looking at what orchestras are doing in Europe and reading research taking place all over the world — to put together what we feel is a safe, socially distanced concert season.

“It has to be done safely or not at all,” he adds, with the same passion in his voice he usually reserves for the classical music he loves. “But I feel like we have a community of people who are responsible and feel the same way. Our musicians want to perform live music, and our patrons want to hear live music, but we know it has to be within the parameters that make it as safe as it can be.”

The “Awesome Classics” concert on Feb. 27, 2021, will include Mendelssohn’s Concerto featuring Fort Smith Symphony concertmaster Er-Gene Kahng.
(File Photo)

To begin with, the musicians must be stationed six feet apart. That means keeping the number of musicians playing at any given performance around 50 to 55, Jeter says.

“We’re fortunate that the orchestra shell can be expanded, so we can make the stage much larger,” he says, “but it’s going to take some adaptation from the musicians. It’s not going to be easy to play six feet apart.”

Also, he says, he combed through each piece of music on the schedule to make sure he could put the instrumentation needed into the space available. One piece will have three percussionists instead of four, he says, and if he needs additional instruments — say a harp and a piano — he’ll have to choose one or the other.

All of the musicians will be wearing masks — even those who must blow into the instruments they play. Jeter says wind players will have masks with small slits for the mouthpieces of their instruments, and brass players will have a mesh screen over the bells of their instruments, all intended to stop the spread of any kind of droplets.

Audience members must wear masks, too, and Jeter says there just isn’t any way to opt out on that requirement. They’ll also be screened on the way in to each performance for elevated temperatures and covid-19 symptoms or contacts. Family groups will be seated together, but those groups will be separated by three seats on either side and a row in front and back of them. That, he says, still leaves the ArcBest Performing Arts Center able to seat about 400, “but I think we’re probably looking at smaller audiences initially.” To accommodate everyone who wants to attend, each indoor concert will be presented twice, once at 5 p.m. and once at 7:30 p.m., and in between, the concert hall will be disinfected. Jeter says he has seen the ArcBest protocols, and he is “impressed with everyone at the Fort Smith Convention Center.”

Each performance will also be shorter — about an hour with no intermission — but Jeter has managed to squeeze in most of the music he promised this spring. He has, he says, focused on pieces that are happy and uplifting — “because that’s what people need right now.”

“When things first hit, everyone canceled everything,” he says. “Anything that had an audience, from sports to performing arts, everyone just kind of stopped and said, ‘No, we can’t do this.’ But we’ve had some time, and although the overall landscape is still far from where we want it to be, we all need to find a way to experience some sense of normalcy within the context of everything going on. Mental health is starting to become an issue. So we feel like this is an important thing to do.

“I’m sure we’re going to have skeptics, but we’re really trying to do this safely,” he continues. “I feel like we’re doing everything we can. The orchestra will be smaller, the audience will be smaller, the programs will be shorter, the plans have been approved by the Arkansas Department of Health. And I think we have an audience that’s going to follow the rules.

“So far, our subscription sales are at about half our usual, but that number is growing as people know more about our updated plans,” he adds. “And we’ve had terrific support from our sponsors. Everyone knows things could change, but it is our intent to do this. And we’ve built a lot of options into how we do it — moving an indoor concert outdoors, for instance.”

Jeter has had to give up some of his favorite programming for the season. The Earquake concerts that bring children from schools around Fort Smith into the ArcBest Performing Arts Center have been canceled.

“We decided not to do it virtually this year, but we will next year if we have to,” he says.

But schools — not just in Fort Smith but anywhere — will have access to Kool Cats jazz educational performances and Symphony in the Schools programs recorded at the U.S. Marshals Museum and available free of charge.

“The space at the Marshals Museum has great acoustics and makes six musicians sound like 30,” Jeter says. “And the great part is that any school can request the videos.”

Jeter says orchestras in Europe are performing, and the Tulsa Symphony has announced it will open its season Sept. 5 at ONEOK Field.

“I think we can do this safely,” he says. “I know we can’t do it without the terrific support of our sponsors, especially our season sponsors, Mercy and the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education. We’ll just have to see how the audience likes it.”


Fort Smith Symphony

2020-21 Season

Oct. 17 — Pops On The Border: Music from “Cinema Paradiso,” “My Fair Lady,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “Downton Abby,” “Les Miserables” and more, performed outdoors on the grounds of the U.S. Marshals Museum, 4 & 6 p.m.

Dec. 5 — ‘Tis the Season: Holiday classics from “Sleigh Ride” to “The Nutcracker,” 5 & 7:30 p.m., ArcBest Performing Arts Center.

Feb. 27, 2021 — Awesome Classics: Mendelssohn’s Concerto featuring Er-Gene Kahng and Beethoven’s playful Symphony No. 4, 5 & 7:30 p.m., ArcBest Performing Arts Center.

Feb. 28, 2021 — Chaplin’s “The Kid”: Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 silent film, “The Kid,” will be presented with Chaplin’s original score performed by the Fort Smith Symphony, 5 & 7:30 p.m., ArcBest Performing Arts Center. The replaces the previously scheduled “North by Northwest.”

April 24, 2021 — Classic Hits: Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” Overture, Vivaldi’s Cello Concerto in g Minor featuring James Robert Bradshaw and Haydn’s Symphony in D Major, 5 & 7:30 p.m., ArcBest Performing Arts Center.

May 22, 2021 — Film Score Festival: Music from “Superman,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Mission, “Forrest Gump,” “War Horse,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Harry Potter,” “How to Train Your Dragon” and more, 5 & 7:30 p.m., ArcBest Performing Arts Center.

COST — Season tickets are currently on sale at prices ranging from $210 -$160; single tickets may be offered later

INFO — 452-7575 or

Categories: Music