Fort Smith Symphony proves rock is ageless, timeless

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 210 views 

FORT SMITH — Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news: The Fort Smith Symphony rocked the house Saturday (April 21) at Arkansas Best Corp. Performing Arts Center.

The History of Rock & Roll featured a score of 39 pieces, taking the audience on a chronological journey from rock's blues roots of the early 20th century to the present. The collaborative effort featured performances from University of Arkansas-Fort Smith faculty, students, pillars of the live local music community and dancers from Western Arkansas Ballet. A few of the artists whose works resonated within the concert: Count Bassie, Bill Monroe, The Platters, Little Richard, The Beatles, Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, The Eagles, Chicago, Led Zeppelin, Michael Jackson, Mettalica, Queen, Coldplay, Eminem and Lady Gaga.

“People [who] do not come for the symphony, they think it's all high-tail music and it's not. We have everything. Everything!" said Wanda Srygley, who was in the audience last weekend.

The score, all 418 pages, was composed by Don Bailey, director of jazz studies at UAFS, with the help of his wife Terri, who edited the work, and son Shane, who composed five of the selections. Bailey said he began research in mid July of 2011 and spent a month deciding which artists to represent. His decisions were based on record sales and the overall influence of the acts on music.

Bailey then used each group's top three songs to create a sonic and lyric snapshot which he used to write original compositions in the same style but with different music and lyrics. To avoid copyright infringement, all selections cannot contain more than four original notes in a row.

The score was completed in December and editing took an additional two months. Though the process was not complete until March, practices began in January with Bailey hosting local musicians and singers at his house. Officials at UAFS granted Bailey a sabbatical in the fall — without which, this composition would not have been possible.

The project is a follow-up to Bailey’s 2006 Jazz Suite — A Retrospective, which the symphony performed as half of a symphony concert. John Jeter, director of the Fort Smith Symphony, suggested to Bailey that Bailey and the symphony collaborate on a history of rock & roll as the two walked off the stage that night.

That was six years ago.

Bailey said he had specific people in mind to perform when he chose the artists represented in the program. For example, he envisioned Tonya Nikokheli as a great Diana Ross. And there was no substitute for Lacey Thomas as Janis Joplin. Bailey said he would not have included Joplin in the program if Thomas had not committed to the part in advance.

Other stand-out performances: Larry Bedell was spot-on as Little Richard in both music and mannerisms, Gary Hutchison and Karen Jeter nailed Jimi Hendrix with smokin' guitar and electric violin solos and Robert Plant came alive with the pitch-perfect shrill screams of Terry Wise. The hard edge of Nirvana and Metallica, a style least likely to be associated with a symphony, was performed coherently with the gritty groans of the string section in unison. Wrapping up the show was the "Rock On Finale" — a spin off of the 1985 charity song "We Are the World." The entire cast took the stage and performed in a “We are the World”-type  sing-a-long that brought the audience to its feet for a standing ovation. Elvis made a final statement from the stage with his trademark, "Thank you. Thank you very much." Surprisingly, the entire group only had its first combined rehearsal the night before the show.

"I think it's great. You know, I'm an older guy but the way that they imitate those people — it's just fantastic. And the music is great. You know all this development of rock & roll, a lot of it was after my time but I know it and kept up with it. It's just wonderful," said Bob Laser, a symphony patrons whose children grew up in the 1950s and 1960s.