Fifty years ago, a group of women got together to try to increase awareness and interest in the newly formed Arkansas Symphony Orchestra.
Today, more than 200 people -- female and male -- make up the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra Guild. Each year, the guild is charged with raising money for the orchestra as well as supporting music education programs and encouraging audience development.
Beth Nyhus is a founding member of the guild and a past president. She remembers that when the guild was in its infancy, it was a female-only organization.
"That was just the times, I think," says Nyhus, a former French teacher. "I think most guilds all over the country were women's guilds, but we have all learned that we need men in the organization."
The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra incorporated in 1966. Nyhus says at that time she and other music supporters found that the Arkansas Symphony had very little community support.
"There was just no better way to get a community involved than to get a guild going and get people involved in education and outreach," says Nyhus, who is a choral singer. "So we formed the guild and from there, this is our 50th year, and I was so glad to be a part of that from the very beginning.
"You couldn't have a group of players in an auditorium that is going to be empty because people didn't know much about it," Nyhus adds. "So we knew that the guild would -- through fundraising projects and outreach education -- be able to influence a lot of other women to join the guild."
Ouida Keck, who serves as the guild's current president, earned a doctor of musical arts degree from the University of Iowa and retired as head of the piano program at Ouachita Baptist University. She and her husband, George Keck, moved from Arkadelphia to Little Rock about three years ago. George was the first male president of the guild, serving in 2014-15.
Betty Herron, who served as guild president from 2011-12, was introduced to classical music by her husband, Jerry.
The three women work on many of the guild projects and call each other friends.
"We enjoy being with each other," Herron says. "We enjoy the outcome, which is support [for] the symphony. I mean, this hall has given us so much pleasure."
The hall is Robinson Center Performance Hall. In late 2016, a $70 million renovation of the facility was unveiled. It included a totally rebuilt performance space with state-of-the art acoustics.
Keck says the sound quality is "greatly improved."
Nyhus recalls that when Kurt Klippstatter was hired as symphony conductor in the 1970s, he said he would not perform in the auditorium unless a sound baffle was installed.
"The remodel is just fabulous and it shows the community is willing to put the support behind a huge endeavor, a bond issue, because they want good sound and an auditorium that can bring in the best national shows as well as our own symphony," Nyhus says.
Before she retired, Herron was a nurse at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. She recalls the hospital recruiting professionals from all over the world.
"One of the benefits is to be able to come to a city that has a symphony, an art center and a repertory theater," Herron says. "We are so fortunate. It's accessible and you don't have to drive two hours. It's all right here."
To raise money for the symphony, the guild sponsors several projects. The most profitable is the Symphony Designer House. Every two years, a house is chosen and the homeowners move out. Local interior designers take over, redecorating the abode. The home is then opened for public tours and special events.
The 2018 Symphony House is at 8 Valley Creek View in Little Rock. It will be open April 13 to May 13. The event typically raises between $90,000 and $150,000, Herron says.
Other guild-sponsored fundraisers include selling playing cards with scenic photos of Arkansas, a bridge tournament and a new event for last year -- Rhythm on the River.
In total, the guild has given almost $2.2 million to the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra.
"We are so lucky, " Herron says. "We have been here 50 years and we have seen the symphony grow and grow and grow. The musicians, the talent, the conductors -- it has been fabulous and we are so lucky."
The symphony now performs more than 60 concerts each season. Guest artists have included Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Mignon Dunn, Marilyn Horne, Andre Watts, Maureen McGovern, Bernadette Peters, Maya Angelou and Doc Severinsen.
In addition to central Arkansas, symphony guilds are active in Hot Springs Village and Russellville*.
More information about the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra and the Orchestra Guild can be found at arkansassymphony.org.
Ouida Keck (from left), Betty Herron and Beth Nyhus are working on plans to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Arkansas Symphony Guild. And the guild’s 2018 Symphony Designer House opens in April.
High Profile on 02/11/2018
*CORRECTION: The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra has guilds in Little Rock, Hot Springs Village and Russellville. The location of the guilds was incorrect in an previous version of this story.
Print Headline: Guild keeps the symphony playing