Prelude: On the Verge

It’s hard to pinpoint, exactly, the origins of what we know today as the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. But one thing’s for sure: There’s never been a shortage of talent—or tenacity


THE MAN WHO TAMED the music made little to no sound. Three taps against a desk with his baton before launching into a piece. A small grunt when the French horn went off key, maybe. Laurence Powell was a serious man, focused on the serious music-making at hand. Sitting in front of him in the space of a high school auditorium nestled between 14th and Cumberland streets were the members of the Little Rock Symphony Orchestra: 30 professionals and 15 amateur musicians, as one reporter with the Arkansas Gazette Magazine observed during a 1936 rehearsal.

The outline of his reddish-brown hair, with its bubblelike bumps, must’ve looked to the musicians like a child’s drawing of a cloud. It was the kind of hair that would, most probably, sway when the conductor raised his arms—his right hand controlling the beat, his left dipping and rising with the music, giving cues to players. With all that movement, his shirt sleeve, rolled up high above his elbow, began to unfold, the corner of his cuff flapping with every wave of his arm. When looking over the players, his eyes were known to go cold behind his glasses, and at times, his temperament got the best of him. When half of the orchestra members forgot to clamp their mutes (a small device that changes the way an instrument sounds) to the bridges of their stringed instruments, tension simmered. “That is a mark of an amateur,” he told the reporter. Though he often barked at the musicians, flicked their “scores from the stand to the floor” with the tip of his baton, he was also the sort of person who praised his orchestra and took no credit for himself.

After all, they were there because they wanted to stay. There were no membership fees. The orchestra’s performances were free to the public. The musicians didn’t get paid but hoped they would one day—one day when the orchestra grew and garnered attention. Others did it for the fire in their bellies, a simple love for music. That fire is the reason why, every Thursday, Laurence—a Birmingham, England-born professor of music theory at the University of Arkansas, who first began conducting at the age of 21 and played his composition titled Ride the Night Clouds in front of the likes of noted Finnish composer Jean Sibelius—would drive from Fayetteville to Little Rock, racking up 25,000 miles on his car during his first year.

stella-boyle-smith7The state needed an orchestra, Laurence knew. In fact, everyone knew. There had been previous attempts at doing just that. Back in the ’20s, when Stella Boyle Smith, philanthropist and patroness of music and education, moved to Little Rock, she planned to form an orchestra, out of her sheer love for music. “We finally had a little orchestra,” she said in a 1989 interview. “We had eight instruments, all volunteers, and we used to meet at the back end of a hardware store, and we’d have our board meetings, and we’d climb over lawn mowers and bicycles and everything else to get back into the storeroom where there was a little table, and we’d have our board meetings there. There were some hot arguments going on back there.”

Although Stella’s group wasn’t a formal organization—just musicians gathering to play, sometimes in her living room, experimenting, adding and subtracting instruments or weaving them together—it provided a strong spiritual foundation to the group’s successor. The desire for a state orchestra never dimmed, which was why, in 1933, Laurence renewed the effort, reaching out to the Little Rock Musical Coterie (a club formed in 1893 that supported musical endeavors in the community) for a list of potential candidates. Going through them one by one, he’d pick up the phone and say something to the effect of: Hello. This is Laurence Powell speaking. I know you don’t know me, yet. But you will, and how you will! We’re going to have a symphony orchestra in this town, and we’d be delighted to have you join us. Grab your oboe and come on over Thursday night at the high school band room. Goodbye! And he’d hang up before they had a chance to say no.

At the first rehearsal, only three musicians showed up—two viola players and one clarinetist. It was a good start just the same, he thought, and in only seven weeks, Laurence’s musical group had enough members to finally be called an orchestra. The players, a smattering of whom were in their 20s, some approaching their 40s and 50s and others well beyond that, rarely numbered more than 35. Local institutions were more than willing to lend a helping hand. The Arkansas Power and Light Co. offered the budding orchestra a room for their weekly rehearsals. Music stands? Purchased by the Little Rock Junior College. Music? Lent by the University of Arkansas. On Nov. 19, 1933, eager to prove its worth, with a missing second flute, second oboe and second bassoon, and with less than a dozen rehearsals’ worth of practice, the group assembled onstage and performed for the very first time, debuting with Beethoven’s Egmont Overture and Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. “Getting off to a slightly rough start in the Egmont Overture, which was the opening number on the program, the new orchestra drew together as the first tension wore off and completed the Beethoven composition in good form,” wrote a critic in the Arkansas Gazette the next day. “The Unfinished Symphony was beautifully done. W.G. Bean’s work was excellent, as his bass viol built up the background of the andante movement against which the strings wove the theme.”

While the orchestra enjoyed a great deal of success in its first two seasons, it still lacked a consistent source of funding. According to the 1972 Arkansas Historical Quarterly published when the orchestra wrapped up its second season, the maestro reached out to the public through a letter in the Arkansas Gazette asking for financial support. Otherwise, he said, the orchestra would cease to exist. At this, the Business and Professional Women’s Club stepped in with a fundraiser, and throughout July, the club raised about $3,000, which went toward paying for electricity and heat and a small stipend for players.

By its fourth season, the orchestra was already selling season tickets. By its sixth, it had a board of directors that managed its business affairs, and national concert artists engaged in the orchestra’s performances. By the time Laurence left Arkansas in 1939, the orchestra had a repertoire of more than 100 works. “At first,” Powell mentioned in an Arkansas Gazette article in 1938, “the people talked as they would at a band concert, making it impossible for the softer passages of the music to be heard, but now the entire audience is attentive.” Although these were the beginnings of what is now a respected, full-fledged organization—or really, as far back to the available historical record as we can go—the orchestra’s journey was a vague and unguided process, with an undercurrent of constant change as people, conductors included, came and went.

In the summer of 1939, Laurence’s orchestra disbanded. In 1940, another was formed under the direction of David R. Robertson. Over the course of the next 30 years, the orchestra would be led by more than 10 maestros. Between 1960 and 1965, the orchestra performed intermittently or not at all, with no permanent conductor and no reliable rehearsal space. And even after an effort to revive the orchestra in the late ’60s led to its incorporation in January 1966 and yet another conductor at the helm, the orchestra still struggled with large amounts of debt. The orchestra was, prior to the early ’70s, something of a restless sleeper, tossing and turning, not quite able to find its place. It found itself running out of funds often, or in search of a conductor to man the podium, changing its name many times and reorganizing.

ar_gaz_1938-10-23_p02jpBut in looking at all the failed attempts, the orchestra’s eventual success can’t be traced back to a single individual. It wasn’t just one iron-willed conductor who drew the orchestra out of its debts and disorder. It wasn’t one maestro who swooped in and brought down the house with a near-perfect season. It was a combination of individuals—the maestros key among them—folks like Glen Owens, Francis McBeth, Kurt Klipstatter and orchestra manager Eugene Showalter—but also the people who provided support throughout the long gestation of the project. And more importantly, it was the players, who lingered for no other reason than to make music.

“Our symphony is a force of creativity,” wrote Richard Allen, a former member of the symphony, in a 1975 Arkansas Gazette article. “Once a city has a symphony orchestra, they come to realize that it is not a costly luxury. It is a necessary service for a good quality of life in the community. Little Rock suffered for years with serious shortcomings in its artistic texture. And, without doubt, many gaps are left to be filled, but the symphony is one of the greatest forces for helping to fill these gaps.”