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Arkansas Symphony names ‘hometown hero’ Geoffrey Robson as new music director

by Eric E. Harrison | June 7, 2023 at 11:10 a.m.
Geoffrey Robson speaks after being announced as the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra’s new music director Wednesday at the future site of the Boyle Smith Music Center in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra has ended its four-year national search for a new music director by hiring the “favorite son” candidate, Geoffrey Robson.

Robson, who joined the orchestra in the fall of 2008 as associate conductor and a full-time member of the violin section, has been shepherding the orchestra through its interregnum since the departure of former music director and conductor Philip Mann at the end of the 2018-19 season.

Robson was the unanimous choice of the orchestra’s search committee, which consisted of members of the orchestra board staff and orchestra musicians.

“I’m absolutely thrilled,” Robson said. “What a burst of energy I feel now.”

Orchestra officials officially announced Robson’s hiring at a ceremony Wednesday at the site of its planned Stella Boyle Smith Music Center at Heifer Village in Little Rock’s East Village.

The search was interrupted for more than 18 months as regular concerts were suspended or canceled due to the covid-19 pandemic.

In that time, Robson created alternative programming to keep the musicians employed and occupied, including a series of “Bedtime With Bach” videos and a series of short concerts, online and eventually in public spaces using smaller ensembles and maintaining safe distancing between players.

Orchestra musicians, board members and executives universally praised Robson’s leadership during the pandemic and remarked on his growth as a conductor over that period.

“He’s exactly who we need as a leader," said orchestra CEO Christina Littlejohn, who called Robson “the unanimous hometown hero.”

“I don’t think we would have gotten through covid if it hadn’t been for Geoff," she said. “It also gave us all a way to watch him grow. He’s grown so much, and proven himself as a leader into the future."

Robson was also responsible for programming the 2021-22 and 2022-23 seasons, during which a series of guest conductors took over the orchestra’s podium to essentially audition for the music director job.

Denise Compton, who headed up the search committee, said the panel considered conductors who had made two appearances on the podium — Stephen Mulligan, associate conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra; Akiko Fujimoto, music director of the Mid-Texas Symphony in Seguin, Texas; and Andrew Crust, assistant conductor of the Vancouver Symphony — and Robson.

Matthew Kraemer, who was going to make his second appearance with the orchestra in May, withdrew his name from consideration and canceled his podium appearance after taking a the job as music director of the Louisiana Philharmonic.

“The goal was to find the best conductor who was the best fit for the Arkansas Symphony,” Compton explained.

See more in Thursday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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