2023 In Review: Schola Cantorum, Fort Smith Symphony and SoNA made their musical marks

2023 In Review: Schola Cantorum, Fort Smith Symphony and SoNA made their musical marks

Every year, we at The Free Weekly challenge ourselves to look back and then look forward. So I looked back myself — and came up with more than a dozen stories. It’s been quite a year in the arts!

The criteria, which have been in place for a decade, is these should be arts events that will leave an impact on Northwest Arkansas and the River Valley not just now but in the future.

Having failed at my own assignment, I have instead gathered my choices into four categories — visual arts, theater, music and entertainment — and will offer up what I think are the top three in each category, beginning with music.

1. “Considering Matthew Shepard” by Schola Cantorum

On Oct. 7, 1998, Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, was brutally attacked and tied to a fence in a field outside of Laramie and left to die. On Oct. 12 of that year, he succumbed to his wounds at a hospital in Fort Collins, Colo.

Those facts are the basis for “Considering Matthew Shepard,” 263 pages — about an hour and 45 minutes — of music and spoken word that tells the story of how being gay cost Shepard his life.

Stephen Caldwell, director of the University of Arkansas’ premier vocal group, Schola Cantorum, wanted to mark the 25th anniversary of Shepard’s death with a production that was staged April 15. It didn’t happen without losing “several students [who] decided that they couldn’t sing the work as a matter of personal faith, and so left the group as a result.” And not without “[certain] groups [who] have come to our campus with signs, bullhorns, and pamphlets, screaming their hateful rhetoric at students.”

But Caldwell knew it was worth it.

“I would have programmed [‘Considering Matthew Shepard’] already but for the pandemic, which disrupted concerts for us,” he says. “It is incredible music, it tells a story that everyone should know, and despite the tough subject matter is ultimately an uplifting piece about love and acceptance — two things our society needs.”

2. Fort Smith Symphony: “Native American Legends”

Louis Wayne Ballard — or “Honga-no-zhe,” meaning “Grand Eagle” in Quapaw — was born on July 8, 1931, in Devil’s Promenade, Okla., near Miami. His mother was Quapaw; his father Cherokee. At 6, he was sent to the Seneca Indian Training School, where the goal was to assimilate him into white American culture.

Ballard’s story of cultural indoctrination is unfortunately not unusual for the time when he grew up. What makes it notable is his resistance — he continued to speak Quapaw, despite being punished for doing so; in 1962, he became the first Native American to receive a graduate degree in composition from the University of Tulsa; and in his work as a composer, he made a lifelong commitment to keeping his musical roots alive.

Ballard died in 2007, but his music is enjoying a revival, thanks to his granddaughter Simone Ballard’s efforts and the Fort Smith Symphony, which performed an evening of Ballard’s music April 22 — and then recorded it for Naxos Records.

“Louis Ballard is one of those wonderful composers who has a style all his own,” music director John Jeter enthused at the time. “One can hear influences of Stravinsky, Ravel and Copland, but he also utilizes Native American instruments, rhythms and both original and composed Native American melodies and combines them into a wonderful style.”

The recording, titled “Louis Wayne Ballard: The Four Moons & Other Works,” came out Nov. 10 on the Naxos label at naxos.com.

3. SoNA’s first album

“New Canons,” released June 9, was the first album ever for the Symphony of Northwest Arkansas — and the first commercial recording of each of the compositions included on it: “Latency Canons” by Ray Lustig, “In saecula saeculorum” by SoNA Music Director Paul Haas and “Cohere I” by Trevor New.

The recording came together “rather organically,” said Riley Nicholson, then the orchestra’s executive director. (He has since moved on to lead the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz, Calif., and Ben Harris, who most recently was SoNA’s general manager, officially took the job Sept. 12.)

“During the pandemic, we had produced ‘Latency Canons’ as a virtual concert as we couldn’t perform in person,” Nicholson said. “Then, we wanted to work with Trevor New as part of a SoNA Beyond collaboration with Crystal Bridges in June of 2022, so while he was in town for that concert, we recorded his work. Then we included Paul’s piece on our mainstage symphonic season in spring of 2023, so we recorded his work then. Now two-plus years in the making, we’re thrilled to bring it all together.”

A digital release only, “New Canons” is available on Spotify and other major streaming platforms.

What did I miss? Send your additions to our yearend memories by emailing bmartin@nwaonline.com.

Categories: Music