Symphony plays tribute to Ouachita Baptist professor/composer

Originally Published March 17, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated March 15, 2013 at 11:00 a.m.
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Philip Mann, music director of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, and the orchestra receive a standing ovation following a March 8 concert in Jones Performing Arts Center at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia. The performance featured the music of W. Francis McBeth, an internationally acclaimed composer and conductor and longtime professor of music at OBU. McBeth died last year at age 78.

It was a very special night in Arkadelphia.

On March 8, the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra presented a concert at Ouachita Baptist University featuring the music of W. Francis McBeth, a legendary professor at OBU, a world-renowned composer and the conductor and music director of the Arkansas Symphony from 1970 to 1973.

The concert, which was a celebration of the life and music of McBeth, who died Jan. 6, 2012, brought together generations of his students, as well as friends, family and music lovers from around the region, to hear his music played by the orchestra he once led.

“It was a fabulous night,” said George Keck, who served on the OBU music faculty with McBeth for 27 years. “When it was over and Mary, his wife, came backstage, she told me, ‘I really enjoyed this.’”

Keck, who retired in 2011 as chairman of the Division of Music, introduced the concert to the more than 700 people attending the special performance.

“The concert brought in three threads in the life and career of Dr. McBeth,” Keck told the audience. “These were his life as a professor, and many of his students helped make this night possible; his life as a composer, and two of his pieces are being played; and his life as a conductor with this orchestra, which he conducted and remained so close to after he turned the baton over to another.”

The conductor who now holds that baton, Philip Mann, music director of the ASO, said he and the orchestra members also enjoyed the night.

“Every member of the orchestra is over the moon,” Mann said. “The audience had a fantastic response to the program.”

Mann also met with the composer’s wife backstage.

“After the performance, she said she was overjoyed,” he said. “She said that during the end of his symphony, that it felt like Dr. McBeth was there, encouraging the snare drums on. We were so pleased to see her response.”

McBeth’s Symphony No. 3, a work that won a major award from the Eastman School of Music, was given its ASO premiere.

“We made a world-premiere live recording of the work as an archival project,” Mann said. “We hope it will help the piece have its own long life.”

Mann said the piece has

several very different moods but is moved along by its driving rhythm.

“It starts with big brass and percussion. You can tell it was written by someone with one foot in the band world and one foot in the orchestral world,” he said. “In the second movement, it has a slower section that is intimate.

“Then it drives to the end with its own pulse. It will remind people of some of the best film scores.”

Another McBeth piece on the program was A Rose for Emily. Mann said its “beauty … reveals the depth and compassion of the man.”

William Francis McBeth was born in Texas in 1933. From a musical family, he learned the trumpet from his father and piano from his mother. He later also played the bass violin. He was playing in his church orchestra before he started school.

In college, he not only played in the band but played football and won the Golden Gloves Boxing Championship for West Texas.

He was in the band for the 101st Airborne Division and wrote his first symphony while in the Army.

McBeth joined the faculty at Ouachita Baptist in 1957 and remained 39 years, Keck said. During that time, McBeth was the band director, composer in residence and chairman of the theory and composition department.

Keck said McBeth was gone almost every weekend from Arkadelphia, conducting or helping others with his music around the world.

“It is astonishing the number of musicians McBeth influenced and inspired over the decades,” Mann said. “In the wind and band world, he remains an icon, known to every high school and college band member.”

Mann said McBeth helped turn the ASO into a professional organization, hiring some of the orchestra’s first full-time professional musicians.

“When I first learned of Dr. McBeth’s death in Jan-

uary [2012],” Mann said, “my first thoughts were on the

astonishing number of musicians that he influenced and inspired over the decades.”

In a 2010 interview published by the Associated Press, McBeth said retirement gave him a chance to be even more dedicated to his music.

“My fondest desire is to have music lovers everywhere say, ‘I like his music,’” McBeth said in the interview.

Mann said he now wants to play McBeth’s music again.

“I want the orchestra to share this music with other communities in Arkansas and help tell the story of this important figure,” he said.

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

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