Rearranging The Holidays: Fort Smith Symphony plays new versions of old favorites

Rearranging The Holidays: Fort Smith Symphony plays new versions of old favorites

Matt Riley didn’t grow up celebrating Christmas. His mother, he explains, was Jewish. But now, it’s Christmas year-round for the composer, his wife and their four children. Riley is also a very popular arranger of music, and he’s working on new holiday arrangements constantly.

John Jeter, music director of the Fort Smith Symphony, calls Riley’s arrangements “brilliant.”

“His creations are glorious, full-orchestra versions of popular holiday favorites, often featuring a solo instrumentalist,” Jeter explains. The orchestra’s upcoming “It’s Christmastime” performance Dec. 4 will include “a beautiful version of ‘Amazing Grace’ that will feature Fort Smith Symphony violinist Mia Catania; Fort Smith Symphony concertmaster Er-Gene Kahng will be soloist for ‘Carol of the Bells’ and ‘God Rest yet Merry Gentleman’; and pianist Shalon Lester will be featured in a few works including a wonderful version of ‘Do You Hear What I Hear.’

“Honestly, these Matt Riley pieces are some of the very best orchestral holiday pieces in existence.”

“I’ve grown to love Christmas music,” says Riley, who lives in Minneapolis. “I’m drawn to it because it evokes feelings of nostalgia, excitement, and togetherness. I can’t speak to why John enjoys performing my arrangements so much, but I am honored that he does. He is an extremely gifted conductor, and I was excited to hear that he and the Fort Smith Symphony will be performing so many of my pieces.”

Arranging a piece of music, Riley explains, means “taking a melody and reimagining the setting, instrumentation, rhythmic bed, or even the entire concept of the piece to create a new and different emotional journey and experience for the listener. It’s like telling a story in a different way. If possible, I like to take a piece in a completely different direction than what people have heard before. I often compose new sections of music in my arrangements to alter them further.”

Arranging is certainly akin to composing, which is really Riley’s first love. He grew up in a musical family in southern Indiana — the oldest of six kids without a television — and “one of my earliest memories is of being with my mom and listening to Bach. Her love for the music made an impression on me,” he says.

“She would point out the texture of the music and the instrumentation that was being used,” he remembers. “I would then run to the piano and try to play something similar, but I hadn’t received any training at that point. When I was 7, my parents and grandmother found me a piano teacher after I had been begging for lessons. Up to that point I figured a lot out by ear, but I knew I needed instruction.”

Riley’s teacher was a lady named Cola Heiden who was in her 80s, he explains.

“Cola was an amazing woman who had fled from the Nazis in the 1940s and had started a new life in the U.S. She was also a composer and would write out the music by hand that I was to learn that week. She showed me that music was something that you could create on the spot with nothing more than a pencil. I studied with her for several years and then went on to study at the young musicians program at Indiana University in Bloomington.

“I was one of those weird kids that always knew what I wanted to do,” he adds. “I think at first, I wanted to be a concert pianist and perform Chopin and Rachmaninoff, but then I fell in love with composing.”

Jeter started programming Riley’s Christmas music last year, when the orchestra played his arrangement of “We Three Kings” for solo violin and orchestra — “and it was the highlight of the concert,” he says.

This year’s performance will also include “a really fun piece called ‘Symph-Hanukkah’ by Peter Jaffe,” Jeter says. “It’s a collection of Hanukkah favorites that suddenly morphs into a super-famous classical piece with a thrilling ending!”

And, Jeter adds, “I have been told many times that we simply can’t do a holiday concert without Leroy Anderson’s ‘Sleigh Ride.’ Yes, we ARE performing it!”



Fort Smith Symphony:

‘It’s Christmastime’

WHEN — 7 p.m. Dec. 4

WHERE — ArcBest Performing Arts Center in Fort Smith

COST — $20-$50

INFO — 452-7575 or

BONUS — An “After-Party” follows the concert at the Bakery District directly across the street from the concert hall. Holiday music will be presented by the MACO Saxophone Quartet. Concert tickets can be used for free drinks.

Categories: Music