Symphony concert in the woods draws sellout crowd

By Wayne Bryan Originally Published April 28, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated April 26, 2013 at 10:46 a.m.
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Wayne Bryan

Members of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, led by co-concert master Kril Laskarov, front, warm up for a performance in Anthony Chapel at Garvan Woodland Gardens near Hot Springs. The group played to a sellout crowd in the glass-walled structure, surrounded by nature.

How did something that sounded so strange end up being so popular?

First, take members of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, with its men in white tie and tails, and the women in formal black, and have them meet at a place in the woods to play an almost-priceless collection of instruments.

But the woods were Garvan Woodland Gardens near Hot Springs, and the place was the wood of the six-story Anthony Chapel, with its floor-to-ceiling glass walls creating a backdrop of green trees, spring blooms and a sun-warmed evening — the results sublime.

“That’s a word that’s often overused,” said Philip Mann, conductor and music director of the ASO. “But for this evening, I think it fits.”

On April 21, the string section of the orchestra, about 25 musicians, performed at the first large classical concert in the gardens, said Sherre Freeman, marketing director for Garvan Gardens.

“There were 205 seats, and every one of them was filled, and we could have sold a lot more,” she said during a reception after the performance. “It was sold out weeks ago.”

The late afternoon sunlight was about all that was needed to light the performance, except for the lights atop the music stands of the performers.

The musical pieces were selected to match the size of the chapel and the glass walls and high ceiling, which were an acoustical concern before the concert but caused no problems for the players.

“We have been trying to bring the orchestra to new places this year,” Mann said of the event sponsored by the Hot Springs/Hot Springs Village Symphony Guild.

In March, the orchestra played for the first time in Arkadelphia, in a memorial concert for OBU music professor, composer and former ASO conductor Francis McBeth. The group also opened a new performance hall in Hope and performed for the first time at several other locations around the state, even at a prison in Pine Bluff.

Mann said the same musicians who performed April 21 traveled to the Randall L. Williams Correctional Facility to perform several musical pieces, including two of the selections that were performed at the gardens concert.

“We didn’t know how well it would go,” said Dr. Richard Wheeler, a member of the ASO Board of Directors. “They ate it up. They seemed to love it.”

Mann said he told the prison audience that the group had just played the same program for Gov. Mike Beebe.

“But I said I was adding some extra things for them, and they whooped it up,” Mann said. “They were one of the most attentive audiences I have ever seen.”

The concert at the chapel in the woods featured the string orchestra playing three 20th-century compositions that used older forms as their themes, as well as a 21st-century piece by ASO guest composer for the year Jennifer Higdon.

The Higdon piece featured the only nonstring muscian of the evening, Beth Wheeler, the symphony’s principal English horn player. The other music for the evening featured members of two chamber music groups made up of orchestra members: the Quapaw Quartet and the Rockefeller Quartet.

A final number based on Romanian folk dances featured co-concert master Kril Lasarov.

“Tonight, we turn this violinist into a fiddler,” Mann said, introducing the piece.

After the performance, members of the audience said they enjoyed the music, the performers and the setting.

Jim Kelly, a Hot Springs Village resident and member of the area’s symphony guild, said he is always impressed with the sound.

“I came to Arkansas from Moline, Ill., and I was used to hearing the Chicago Symphony,” he said. “I was expecting something less, but in recent years, it’s jumped to a higher level. Listening to the ASO is like listening to the Chicago.”

Lynn Petti of Hot Springs Village said she has been a fan of the orchestra for years, but it seems to have gotten new life.

“I loved the former music director; he was great,” she said. “But it was time for new ideas, and we have that now. It is a new era.”

Representatives of both the orchestra and the gardens plan on teaming up for another performance.

“We will have to schedule more classical programing here in the future,” Freeman said.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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