LITTLE ROCK — For the first full Arkansas Symphony season lineup entirely his creation, Music Director Philip Mann is fulfilling a pledge of sorts he made when he took the job a year ago.
For the orchestra’s 2011-12 Masterworks series, the conductor is putting one foot into contemporary American music, bringing in for residencies two living composers (one of them, Michael Torke, will be the orchestra’s first Composer of the Year). He is keeping the other foot in the classical world of Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms and Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky.
“It’s amazing what we’ve been able to do in just six Masterworks concerts, in terms of diversity of cultures and a beautiful balance” between new and traditional, Mann says.
The music choices for the six programs are partially based on suggestions from symphony musicians, but it is also “repertoire that works not just with the audience but with the strengths and challenges of Robinson Center Music Hall.
“The musicians are excited,” he says, and the re-ally big works - Ottorino Respighi’s The Pines of Rome (Oct. 1-2), Tchaikovsky’s “Little Russian” Symphony (Jan. 28-29), Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 (Oct. 22-23) and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (Feb. 25-26) - “will really blow the roof off for audiences.”
Torke celebrates his 50th birthday Sept. 22. The orchestra and soloist Alexej Gerassimez will give the North American premiere of Torke’s Mojave Concerto for Marimba April 14-15, 2012.
Torke’s Lucent Variations will be on the program for the Oct. 22-23 concert pairing, and Mann says several Torke works will also show up on the orchestra’s River Rhapsodies chamber series.
Torke is a prolific composer whose works have found a home on orchestra programs worldwide for more than 25 years. His official biography defines his music as “post-Minimalist”; most of it is certainly melodic and accessible, particularly compared to that of many of his 20th-century predecessors.
“Torke lives in Las Vegas, which aims to entertain, and so does Torke,” Mann says. “It’s [not] scary new music; for someone hearing it for the first time, it can be endearing and beautiful.”
Mann says Torke recommended Gerassimez, who won the gold medal at the competition for which the piece was written, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw.
Haitian-American composer-violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain, known by his initials, DBR, will be the composer in residence in November, with the help of a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. He will solo in his Voodoo Violin Concerto No. 1 with Mann and the orchestra as part of the orchestra’s second “Beethoven & Blue Jeans” concerts Nov. 12-13.
DBR, who will play the concerto on an electric violin, blends classical, rock and hip-hop into his music.
Mann says the “Beethoven & Blue Jeans” format, which debuted this season, was a big success, drawing not only a larger than usual audience for Masterworks concerts, but “[reaching] a new segment of audiences. We did something very right,” he says, and this year’s concerts “can be even more successful.”
Two Beethoven overtures - Leonore No. 3 and Egmont - will bookend the program; Mann has also programmed Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from WestSide Story.
Mann says he’s “thrilled about the caliber of the guest artists we’ve been able to get this year,” including pianists Norman Krieger, who will solo in the Brahms First Piano Concerto to close the Oct. 22-23 concerts, and Dmitri Alexeev - whom Mann calls “the definitive Russian interpreter of [Dmitri] Shostakovich” - who will play Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in a pair of all-Russian concerts Jan. 28-29.
Mann frankly admits that Torke and the pianists are coming as the result of friendships he built before he took the Arkansas Symphony job. (Mann continues to hold the post of assistant music director at the San Diego Symphony.)
“They’re doing me favors,” he says.
Mann isn’t breaking any new ground when it comes to the season’s symphonic blockbusters, all of which the orchestra performed under former Music Director David Itkin.
The orchestra, a quartet of vocal soloists and a quintet of college choirs performed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as recently as February 2009.
Mann says the combined chorus for this performance could incorporate community and nontraditional choruses from all over the state and the chorus and soloists, he promises, will “look like Arkansas.”
To open that program, Mann will conduct Arnold Schoenberg’s A Survivor From Warsaw for orchestra and men’s chorus. “The Schoenberg is very different piece,” he says. “It poses a question about human spirit that Beethoven answers in his ‘Ode to Joy.’”
Itkin conducted the Tchaikovsky Second Symphony in February 2005; Claude Debussy’s La Mer, which will close out the season April 14-15, 2012, in November2005; and Pines of Rome in November 2000.
Mann will conduct all six Masterworks pairings, all at 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m.
Sunday at Little Rock’s Robinson Center Music Hall. Here’s the full lineup:
Oct. 1-2 - “Italian Vacation.” Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4, “Italian”; Giacchino Rossini: Overture to The Italian Girl in Algiers; Giacomo Puccini: Chrysanthemums; Ottorino Respighi: The Pines of Rome
Oct. 22-23 - “Legends.” Norman Krieger, piano. Georges Bizet: Symphony No. 1; Torke: Lucent Variations; Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1
Nov. 12-13 - “Beethoven & Blue Jeans.” Daniel Bernard Roumain, violin. Beethoven: Leonore Overture No. 3 and Overture to Egmont; Roumain: Voodoo Violin Concerto No. 1; Bernstein: Symphonic Dancesfrom West Side Story
Jan. 28-29, 2012 - “Russian Winter.” Dmitri Alexeev, piano. Sergei Prokofiev: Symphony No. 1, “Classical”; Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 2; Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 2, “Little Russian”
Feb. 25-26 - “Ode to Joy.” Schoenberg: A Survivor from Warsaw; Beethoven: Symphony No. 9
April 14-15: “Desert & Sea.” Alexej Gerassimez, marimba. Richard Wagner: Overture to The Flying Dutchman; Torke: Mojave Concerto for Marimba (American premiere); Debussy: La Mer
POPS AND CHAMBER
Mann will be conducting most of the orchestra’s five pops concerts, including the season opener, a program of music of composer John Williams, Oct. 8-9. He says the program will include plenty of Williams’ film music, but also works that will allow audiences to “discover other sides of John Williams.”
The rest of the pops lineup: the orchestra’s annual Christmas concerts, Dec. 16-18, which will feature “local and regional artistic talents” plus what Mann calls “new sounds and spices”; a Feb. 11-12, 2012, Valentine’s Day program that, at the recommendation of Mann’s friend and colleague Marvin Hamlisch, will have a New York/Broadway theme; and a prominent American pop legend to be announced, May 12-13.
Mann says the orchestra’s audiences and social media fans will select the program for the March 17-18 “People’s Choice” concerts, with audience members voting from lists of possible repertoire that will go out on Twitter, Facebook and the orchestra’s website, and choosing some of the works for second half at intermission. “That will be a bit of a logistical challenge in terms of rehearsal,” Mann admits. But “people know music they’ll be listening to is what they’ve asked for.”
The orchestra has announced the dates, but not the programs, for its River Rhapsodies Chamber Series, Oct. 4, Oct. 25, Nov. 15; Jan. 31, 2012, Feb. 28 and April 17, in the Great Hall of the Clinton Presidential Center.Mann says he’s planning to connect the music on those programs to the repertoire and theme of the Masterworks concerts and some of the Masterworks soloists will stick around to play chamber music.
Season ticket information is available by calling (501) 666-1761 or at the website,