The Fort Smith Symphony may have been small when it was founded in 1923, but it was clearly mighty. It is, after all, about to celebrate its 100th season.
In the annals of Arkansas history, the Fort Smith Symphony predates all of its cousins, including the Symphony of Northwest Arkansas (1954); the South Arkansas Symphony in El Dorado (1956); the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra (1966); and the baby of the family, the Texarkana Symphony (2006).
Music director John Jeter credits the orchestra’s early success to its founder, Katherine Price Bailey, a musician and music teacher living in Fort Smith; her husband, William Worth Bailey, a violinist and the orchestra’s concertmaster; the people of Fort Chaffee, a busy military base during World War II; and connections with the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville in the 1950s.
But the heart of the Fort Smith Symphony, as Jeter saw when he came to town in 1996, was the community surrounding the orchestra.
“The artistic quality of the Fort Smith Symphony was modest at best when I first worked with them, but there was a lot of interest and enthusiasm by the board of directors and the community at the time to turn the orchestra into a quality regional organization,” Jeter remembers. “It was that enthusiasm to improve and change that ultimately brought my wife Karen and I to Fort Smith.”
Going into “RAVE: The Centennial Season,” Jeter says he’s excited about the range of music he’s programmed for the orchestra, especially “Time Flies,” a commission that will celebrate the anniversary.
“We are thrilled to have a partnership with Patrick Conlon, who is a wonderful Canadian/American composer who also happens to be a member of the Fort Smith Symphony,” Jeter explains. “Mr. Conlon has been commissioned to write our 100th anniversary celebration piece as well as a work that celebrates the 100th anniversary of the ArcBest Corporation, which is one of the largest employers in Fort Smith and is also celebrating 100 years.
“We will be performing a total of five works by Mr. Conlon throughout the season and then recording those commercially in March 2025. Patrick’s music is absolutely terrific — very intriguing, very exciting and very fun music.
“Our classical concerts feature a huge orchestra of about 100 musicians playing incredibly popular concert works like Gershwin’s ‘American in Paris,’ Ravel’s ‘Bolero,’ Copland’s ‘Appalachian Spring’ and Respighi’s ‘Pines of Rome’,” Jeter continues. “Our ‘Country Hits: Songs from Nashville’ concert tips our hat to the popular music traditions of the South, which is very much a part of where we live. And closing the season with ‘Star Trek: Into Darkness’ looks to our future as we hope to bring more film score concerts on a regular basis to our audiences.”
But that’s not all that’s happening in the hundredth year.
“Our post concert ‘after-parties’ at the Bakery District will return again after all concerts,” he enumerates. “Our chamber music series returns with performances by the Cavalle Quartet, Symphony Percussion Duo and a violin recital with Concertmaster Er-Gene Kahng and pianist Shalon Lester. Our educational programming returns for third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students as well as a new program for second-graders called Bluegrass Live.”
And “of course, there will be a huge 100th anniversary event on opening night, so stay tuned for details.”
Fort Smith Symphony:
‘RAVE: The Centennial Season’
Sept. 9 — One Hundred Years
Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with pianist Maxim Lando;
Gershwin’s “An American in Paris”;
World premiere of “Time Flies” by Composer-in-Residence Patrick Conlon.
Oct. 14 — Country Hits: Songs From Nashville
Enjoy country hits by Garth Brooks, Patsy Cline, George Strait, Allison Kraus and more featuring vocalists Emily West and Rick Brantley plus music from “The Good the Bad and the Ugly” and “For A Few Dollars More” with vocalist Amanda Lenora Green-Turner and the UAFS Chorus.
Dec. 2 — Holiday Celebration
With performances by the Kool Cats Jazz Quartet and Jolt Electric Quartet.
March 2 — Modern Moves & Epic Journeys
Copland’s “Appalachian Spring”;
Respighi’s “Pines of Rome”;
Conlon’s “Phase Change.”
April 27 — “Star Trek: Into Darkness”
A live screening of the 2013 film with live music performed by the Fort Smith Symphony.
Season tickets starting at $110 for students and $175 for adults are on sale now at fortsmithsymphony.org.