Ray Charles, Broadway part of 91st Fort Smith Symphony season

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 151 views 

"Greater Expectations" is the title of the Fort Smith Symphony's 91st season, which opened earlier this month with its "Musical Kaleidoscope" concert, and will include Broadway tunes and a special performance highlighting the genius of Ray Charles.

The performance served as the perfect start to what is billed as a diverse musical line-up for the symphony this year, showcasing all of the different facets of the orchestra. Concerts in the coming months will include a range of styles. John Jeter, who is entering his 18th season as conductor and musical director of the Fort Smith Symphony, said this year's line-up is a true nod to traditional classical music, with a couple of twists along the way.

"With our big anniversary last year, we focused a lot on versatility," explained Jeter. "This year is a little more traditional in comparison, but will include some unique elements."

The "Greater Expectations" theme is a reflection on how higher standards are set each year for the symphony. In his program letter, Jeter notes that  "Greater expectations for concert seasons are established each and every year. The 2014-2015 season is no exception—it will be better than ever."


The Oct. 25 performance was the first of two "Pops" concerts for this season. Featuring a 90-piece orchestra, the show included a number of recognizable Broadway tunes including hits from "Chicago," "Jersey Boys," "My Fair Lady," "Cats," "Phantom of the Opera," "La Cage aux Folles" and "Spamalot." Members of the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith Chorale accompanied during the first act on Borodin's "Polovitsian Dances" from “Prince Igor.”

Two highly-acclaimed performers, Teri Dale Hansen and Sean MacLaughlin, were featured during the show. Both have performed on Broadway and on stages throughout the country, as well as in television and in film. The inclusion of big stage Broadway  tunes in its concert line-up is a perfect pairing according to Jeter.

"Broadway composers compose with a big orchestra in mind," explained Jeter. "So it is fitting to have a full orchestra to showcase these pieces."

As the holidays quickly approach, the Symphony will soon begin rehearsing for its ever-popular Christmas concert on Dec. 6. "Spontaneous Christmas" will serve as the world "orchestra" premiere of violin sensation Doug Cameron's most recent holiday album.

Music for the event was  drawn from Cameron’s critically acclaimed "Spontaneous Christmas" album and features Doug on his famous blue violin as well as vocals by his son, Alex. Students from the Fort Smith Suzuki School will also perform. In addition to Cameron's compositions, the orchestra will perform many beloved Christmas carols, including "Hark the Herald Angels Sings" and "The Little Drummer Boy."

"This is one of the best holiday concerts that we have ever done," said Jeter. "I can't think of a better Christmas CD than 'Spontaneous.' I believe our audience will be truly wowed by this year's Christmas performance."

The Symphony will move into 2015 by paying homage to some of classical music's most legendary composers. The "French Impressions and Scottish Landscapes" concert on January 24 will include compositions by Ravel, Hadyn, and Mendelssohn performed by a smaller, 45 member chamber orchestra. Matt Vangjel, former University of Arkansas-Fort Smith faculty member and master Trumpeter will perform Haydn's world-famous Trumpet Concerto.

Perhaps one of the most unique concerts this season will be the April 15 presentation of "The Music of Ray Charles." The show will include standards such as "Hit the Road Jack," "Georgia," and "I Can't Stop Lovin' You." While not typically the first artist that comes to mind when thinking of the symphony, Ray Charles' music transcends the rhythm and blues genre and plays out beautifully on the symphony stage.

"Ray Charles sometimes used orchestra in his music," said Jeter. "So it made sense to meld his works with the symphony."

The idea for the collaboration came when Jeter decided to bring award-winning singer Dee Daniels to Fort Smith. An accomplished jazz and blues vocalist, Daniels is recognized world over for her vast range and one-of-a-kind sound.

"Dee is a terrific singer and musician," said Jeter. "Her talents will lend perfectly to this show celebrating Ray Charles' music."

The first half of the concert will include jazz elements with  performances of Bernstein's "Overture to Candide" and Gershwin’s epic, "An American in Paris." Following intermission, the symphony will perform numerous Ray Charles hits, accompanied by Daniels. Her talents, combined with the very "Americana" feel of Charles' songs will make for an inspiring night of music and reminiscing that will undoubtedly have the audience singing in their seats.

The season will close in the spring with "Fate and the Phoenix," a concert designed to showcase the splendor of the string section. Selections will include Travinsky's Suite from “The Firebird," Massenet's "Meditation from Thais," and Sarasate's" Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs), op. 20." For the symphony's final number of the season, it will perform what is perhaps the most  recognizable piece of classical music, Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, op. 67 in C minor. The May 16 concert will also feature Vienna based, Bulgarian violinist Bojidara Kouzmanova. The world-class musician has performed throughout America, Europe, Australia, Asia and Africa and recorded numerous albums.

Although not always immediately obvious to the listener, each season has an overarching theme that is weaved from concert to concert. Jeter and the Symphony Board of Directors also think long-term, looking to achieve specific goals for the organization.

"In terms of planning our music, we don't just think one season at a time," noted Jeter. "We prefer to think about what to present over a period of three or five years. Each season has an overall 'flavor' of sorts. We try to do a mix of great, classic pieces, with lots of variety within those, as well as incorporate unique elements with our Pops and holiday concerts. Much thought goes into our programming planning.”

"Greater Expectations" can be seen in each individual concert and is also what Jeter hopes to accomplish for his audience. Coming off a milestone 90th season that was filled with many celebrations and performances, Jeter hopes to continue the momentum with an even better 91st season. He concludes his program letter to the audience with a simple statement.

"From Bolero to An American in Paris and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, we hope to fulfill your greatest expectations."

Arkansas' oldest orchestra, the Fort Smith Symphony is  comprised of more than 100 musicians from Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, New York, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.

The orchestra has received regional, national, and international recognition. In addition to its annual concert series, the organization sponsors a number of educational programs designed to teach and inspire students to become involved with music programs at their school.  Initiatives include "Earquake!," Symphony in the Schools, and Storybook Strings.

All Fort Smith Symphony concerts are performed at the ArcBest Corporation Performing Arts Center in downtown Fort Smith. For more information about the Symphony line-up or to order tickets, call 452-7575.