Music sets tone for start of $11.75M ASO project

Jim Gifford, a longtime supporter of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, walks between posters showing the interior spaces of the future Stella Boyle Smith Music Center in Little Rock before the start of a groundbreaking ceremony for the center on Thursday. More photos at (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra broke ground Thursday morning on its new $11.75 million Stella Boyle Smith Music Center, on land between the Heifer International headquarters and the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock's East Village.

The 20,000-square-foot center, which the orchestra is calling "a radically welcoming hub of musical activity for all Arkansans," will provide space for the orchestra's youth music and education programs, and also its first permanent administrative headquarters.

The orchestra has been renting space around the city since its incorporation in the mid-1960s -- most recently, and for the past quarter of a century, two floors in Byrne Hall at Little Rock's St. John Catholic Center that the orchestra has long since outgrown.

The orchestra's groundbreaking ceremony featured performances by bagpipers, music students and school drumlines. Five South, an old-time string band from the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View, played for a subsequent reception at the nearby Clinton center.

Orchestra CEO Christina Littlejohn said the current 12-month construction timeline has been shortened from the original 18-month shovel-to-completion estimate that was part of the orchestra's January 2022 announcement that the new center was in the planning stages -- "if the weather is good, even sooner," she added.

Design for the new center is by WER Architects. Bailey Construction is the contractor.

The orchestra had always intended to raise the entire sum it needed toward construction of the new center and an endowment to operate and maintain the building, originally estimated at $9 million, through its "Crescendo" capital campaign before breaking ground. The campaign has so far raised $11.25 million.

However, she said, the decision was made to get started now "because construction costs will only increase," and the orchestra would continually run the risk of "always being $500,000 behind." She expressed optimism that the campaign would be able to soon pull in the remaining half-million-dollar shortfall.

ASO board Chairwoman Jan Hundley described the site as "the perfect location for our new music center." Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. expressed pride in what he called "this anchoring institution," noting it is part of a downtown Little Rock "resurgence" that includes recent announcements of an expansion of the Clinton center and that the state attorney general's office is moving to the Boyle Building at Capitol Avenue and Main Street. The orchestra also used the occasion to unveil a new logo.

The Music Center details have not changed since the January 2022 announcement. It will house the orchestra's E. Lee Ronnel Music Academy and the Arkansas Symphony Youth Orchestra and other youth ensembles. It will have a large hall with a total seating capacity of 300 for rehearsals, recitals and small-ensemble concerts; a number of practice spaces; music classrooms; climate-controlled instrument storage; and what Littlejohn called 2,000 square feet of "shell space," for which the use is not yet specified, but into which the orchestra can expand once the staff gets a feel for what needs might yet be unmet.

"We'll want to see what activities the Arkansas Symphony needs and what programs of ours do, once we know what happens when it's all in one space," she explained. She is also keeping open the option of providing or renting space to other organizations.

Littlejohn said the new center will allow the orchestra to expand its programming to include "more experimental concerts, even family concerts" using smaller orchestral forces (family concerts have taken place at 2,200-seat Robinson Center Performance Hall using the full orchestra), as well as brown-bag and after-school concerts.

The center will also include a broadcast and streaming studio. Littlejohn mentioned discussions with Central Arkansas Library System Executive Director Nate Coulter, who has suggested the possibility of streaming concerts or music lessons to the system's libraries, many of which are after-school hubs.

The orchestra experimented with streaming at the peak of the covid-19 pandemic, sending out small-scale individual and ensemble performances from various spaces in Byrne Hall and from musicians' homes, including the enormously popular "Bedtime With Bach" series that went viral across the world.

  photo  Students with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra String Academy perform “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” alongside members of the orchestra and its Community Orchestra during a groundbreaking ceremony for the new Stella Boyle Smith Music Center near the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock on Thursday. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

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