Arkansas Symphony Orchestra plans new, state-of-the-art $ 9 million music center in Little Rock
The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra’s quarters have become so cramped that its leaders don’t think they can work there any longer.
Over the past quarter of a century, the orchestra has rented two floors from Byrne Hall to the St. John’s Catholic Center in Little Rock, mainly offices on the upper floor, and on the lower level, a large hall with a fireplace. which serves as a rehearsal space for the youth orchestras and an old cellar converted into a multipurpose space.
With a few hundred music students across the state flocking almost every day of the week for lessons and rehearsals, things have grown tense beyond the bounds of what is tenable.
So, on Wednesday morning, the orchestra announced that it was planning a new, state-of-the-art 20,000 square foot music center.
The $ 9 million Stella Boyle Smith Music Center, named after the orchestra’s oldest and most generous patron, will be located in the East Village of Little Rock, between the Clinton Presidential Center and Heifer International .
The main focus of the announcement was to move from private fundraising, which raised $ 5.4 million over two years, or 60% of the total expected cost, to public fundraising to cover the rest. The orchestra calls the fundraising campaign “Crescendo: Building for the future”.
Orchestra officials say that once they have all the money in hand, they expect it to be 18 months from first shovelful to completion.
The orchestra will sublet the land to Heifer International, and the location, near an Interstate 30 off-ramp, makes it more accessible to people from 33 other communities across the state.
“Heifer International gave us the perfect location,” Orchestra CEO Christina Littlejohn said in Wednesday’s announcement.
The plans call for a large hall that will be used for rehearsals, recitals and concerts for small groups and could accommodate up to 300; a number of practice spaces; music classes; storage of instruments at controlled temperature; and “additional flexible space to serve future generations of Arkansans,” according to a press release.
The orchestra’s education programs include the Sturgis Music Academy, which provides violin and cello lessons to more than 350 students statewide, and the ASO Youth Ensembles program, which has nearly 200 students enrolled in two full orchestras and one string ensemble only. The orchestra also operates a community orchestra for adult amateurs, which it took over a few years ago from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
“Right now, hundreds of students and adults come to create, learn and play music in a building that was built in 1916 as a convent,” Littlejohn said. (In fact, for most of its years, Byrne Hall served as the refectory for the Little Rock campus in Pulaski Heights, the seat of the diocese.)
“Children have to rehearse and practice outside, in the storage room or in the offices due to the high demand for music lessons and the limited space in [the orchestra’s] current facility, ”Littlejohn said. “The staff can hear every beginner violinist in the building. We can’t grow at all. “
The new center would allow the orchestra not only to meet current demand, but also potentially expand music education offerings to include, perhaps, music theory and chamber music coaching, Littlejohn said. .
However, orchestral concerts will still be at the Robinson Center.
“The new music center is not a replacement for the performance hall,” Littlejohn said.
The building will also include a dedicated recording and streaming studio, something for which the pandemic has created demand.
The orchestra has broadcast smaller-scale individual and ensemble performances from various spaces in Byrne Hall, including the hugely popular “Bedtime With Bach” series which has gone viral across the world. It also allowed the orchestra to keep its musicians employed and active while other organizations were to close, and Littlejohn said it gave people the opportunity to get to know the musicians in the orchestra on a more personal level. .
Among other things, the studio will provide access to the musical and educational resources of the Arkansan orchestra in nursing homes, retirement centers, libraries, schools “or anyone who cannot make it to the music center. community in person, “according to the press release. Streaming during the pandemic also extended the orchestra’s school concerts to more than 26,000 children in more than 200 schools who, before the pandemic, would have had to travel to Little Rock or Hot Springs to hear the concerts in anybody.
Stella Boyle Smith Trust administrator Mike Mayton said Smith, who died in 1994 at the age of 100, would be proud to have her name on the new music center. She started what eventually became the orchestra in her Hillcrest living room in 1923 and always envisioned its primary function as the promotion of music education, he said.
“This is exactly what the orchestra has been looking for all these years,” said Geoffrey Robson, who served as the orchestra’s artistic director as he searched for a full-time musical director.
Robson, who also led the orchestra’s youth ensembles, says he consulted with the team, including Little Rock architects Witsell Evans Rasco, to make the new music center meet “our greatest needs. “. He expects the new facility to be a “destination for the arts” in central Arkansas.
“We are a hub for music education from all over the state,” he said in Wednesday’s announcement.
In addition to meeting student needs, the Great Hall could be used for chamber music concerts and / or a secondary recital space for musicians entering solo with the orchestra, a venue for nightly performances, mixed social functions and events / performance events. However, he said, it is unlikely to become the primary performance space for the chamber concerts of the River Rhapsody Orchestra, which took place in the Great Hall of the Clinton Center.
“This project will become an incredible addition to the arts and culture landscape of Arkansas and a vibrant creative gem in the East Village of Little Rock,” said Brigita Gardner, Board Member, Donor and President of the fundraising effort.
“I started on the feasibility committee and ended up chairing the fundraising arm,” said Gardner, who has been on the board since 1997.
Fundraising for the center is separate from what the orchestra raises for its annual operations. Its annual budget of $ 3.5 million is used to pay 12 full-time musicians, over 70 part-time musicians and 15 administrative staff, and it has been balanced for a dozen years.
The new facility will also provide new space for the orchestra’s administrative offices, which at one point was to relocate to a space on Main Street in Little Rock, where it is said to have trained, along with its neighbors Ballet Arkansas and the Arkansas Repertory. Theater, which the city has trumpeted as “the creative corridor”.
“The space was not working,” Gardner said. Among other issues, tap dancers in an upstairs studio and a faulty electrical box ultimately made it untenable, she said.
This prompted a five-year search for a location that was more suited to the needs of the organization, which would have included considerable modifications for better acoustics. Eventually it became clear that it would be easier and cheaper to build from scratch than to buy and renovate an existing facility.
Gardner said the orchestra board is determined to have the full sum – $ 9 million to build the facility and an additional $ 1 million in endowment to operate and maintain it – on hand before starting construction. .
Gardner said the goal is for the center to be completed by July 2023.
“It’s not like we’re building the Taj Mahal,” she said. “We are responsible.”
With $ 5.4 million in cash and pledges in coffers, the next phase of the project will require direct support from the communities it serves, orchestra officials say. The orchestra is in the process of setting up a website, arkansassymphony.org/music-center, with information and a way to donate.
Gardner said board members have contributed or raised $ 3.2 million of the total, proving that “we have an engaged board – and an engaged board.”
“We are proud to support the construction of the Stella Boyle Smith Music Center because we know the impact it has on the lives of our youth and our communities both now and for our future,” said Chris White, member of the orchestra council and executive vice-president. and the president of the Arkansas community division of Simmons Bank, which donated $ 500,000 for the project. The educational suite will bear the name of the bank.
Board member Dr Teresita Angtuaco, University of Arkansas diagnostic ultrasound radiologist for medical sciences, saw her three granddaughters’ success in symphony education programs as a factor motivation to support music education. (All three of them studied violin and piano until one of them, under the influence of an uncle who played in a band in Texas, switched to the trombone.)
“You can see it in their growing self-confidence and their pride in what they do,” Angtuaco said. “You can see it on the faces of their friends who wish they could play.
“That’s the message most of us get on the board.”