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OPINION | MUSIC REVIEW: Live audience returns for Arkansas Symphony's free 'Celebrate' concert

by Eric E. Harrison | September 16, 2021 at 10:02 p.m.
Singer Genine LaTrice Perez and pianist Karen Walwyn are shown in this undated compilation photo. The two appeared with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra in its free “Celebrate Little Rock, Together” concert, held Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021, at Little Rock’s Robinson Center Performance Hall. The concert was also simulcast to a big screen in the Dunbar neighborhood. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette)

The Price was right. So was the Dvorak, the Gershwin tune and the opening fanfare. The Bernstein was a little sloppy. The stage microphones were perhaps a little too hot.

Thursday night at Little Rock’s Robinson Center Performance Hall, the Arkansas Symphony welcomed its first live audience in a while with a “Celebrate Little Rock, Together” concert, a freebie thank-you to the community for its support through the pandemic and a preview of the 2021-22 season. The concert was also simulcast to an outdoor screen at West 15th and South Chester streets, near Philander Smith College, in Little Rock’s Dunbar neighborhood.

The centerpiece, and the concert highlight, was the premiere of composer Florence Price’s own orchestration of her 1934 “Piano Concerto in One Movement” with pianist Karen Walwyn as soloist. The work’s three parts were clearly defined, the opening a Romantic classical concert piece in the mold of Grieg and Brahms; the second, an echo of Black spirituals; and the third a jazzy cakewalk. The performance was a warm-up for today’s recording session on the Robinson stage with an eventual planned commercial release.

It was a good match for the fourth and final movement, “Allegro con fuoco,” of Antonin Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony, which conductor Geoffrey Robson took at a quick tempo and without too many subtleties. James Stephenson’s “Fanfare for Democracy” was a loud and lively curtain-raiser; not everybody was on the same page, however, through portions of Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to “Candide.”

Local jazz/soul/gospel singer Genine LaTrice Perez, a diminutive lady with a titanic voice, brought things to a fever pitch with a sneak peek of the season’s spring pops concerts, acing George Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” and a couple of songs that were triumphs for Aretha Franklin: “(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman” and, after a quick costume change, a blow-out performance with tenor Tommy Mason Jr. of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

Robson generously provided live program notes from the stage, especially helpful since there was no printed program, but a couple of them went on longer than perhaps they should. Even for a free concert, folks prefer hearing music to talk.

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