"Playing Florence Price's violin concerto is so empowering," says Er-Gene Kahng, concert master for the Fort Smith Symphony. "It is an opportunity to celebrate Arkansas history, champion historically overlooked voices, and perform a beautiful concerto."
Kahng ought to know.
"Er-Gene was the first violinist to record and perform the concerto after it was rediscovered in 2009," explains John Jeter, the Fort Smith Symphony's music director. "She was the first to perform it with orchestra in 2018 with the Arkansas Philharmonic, conducted by Steven Byess. She can be considered the expert violinist for this work and has already performed it with four different orchestras. One can't experience a more authoritative performance anywhere else!"
Jeter chose Price's 1952 Violin Concerto No. 2 to open the symphony's 2021-22 season on Sept. 11, along with the "Masked Ball Waltz" (1894) by Amy Beach and Symphony No. 8 (1889) by Bohemian composer Antonin Dvorak. According to Jeter, Beach was the first recognized female American concert composer in the United States, while Price, from Arkansas, was the first to be recognized as a female African-American composer.
"The Beach and Price works are beautiful pieces in a classic Americana style," says Jeter, adding that Price's works, with their "ever present blues and spiritual feel," are popular choices for the 2021-22 season across the country. "These works provide a great contrast to the clearly direct and sunny central European musical style of Dvorak, whose 8th Symphony is one of the popular of all Romantic Era orchestral works.
"We wanted to present masterworks composers as well as showcase female composers and composers of color," he explains. "It is truly amazing how many wonderful composers there are out there, and we are making an effort to expand our repertoire to explore this great variety of music. The programming for this concert features two beautiful works that are rarely performed."
"Rare" might have described the Fort Smith Symphony's 2020-21 season, too. The orchestra was one of only a handful nationwide to play traditional indoor concerts during the first iteration of the covid-19 pandemic. Along the way, Jeter learned some lessons he's continuing to implement during the 2021-22 series.
"The concerts will be given without intermission and will last about 1 hour and 15 minutes," he says, a shortened, uninterrupted presentation audiences enjoyed last year. Jeter says concertgoers will love the new digital programs available on their phones -- another success in 2020-21 -- and the orchestra will count on the health precautions initiated last year to keep everyone safe.
"All orchestra members, guest artists and stage crew are immunized and will wear masks at the concert," Jeter elaborates. "Wind players will remove their masks only when playing. All audience members are requested to wear masks at the concert. [And] the ArcBest Performing Arts Center high air-change rate air system will be utilized during this event."
New this season will be a post-performance party, an idea born of the concert's earlier starting time. After the opening concert, Latin music will be performed by Duo Capriccioso.
"Ticket holders can walk across the street from the concert hall to the Bakery District for drinks and live music in an outdoor setting," Jeter says. "These Symphony After-Parties will take place after most of our concerts. Ticket holders can show their tickets at this event for two free drinks, [and] the event is only open to concert attendees. Fortunately, it can be held outdoors for maximum safety and air-circulation."
Jeter says the pandemic taught audiences some important lessons, too.
"I think people really appreciate live music now more than ever," he says. "One could see the excitement after the last covid wave disappeared in attendance at many summer music events."
Fort Smith Symphony:
WHEN — 7 p.m. Sept. 11
WHERE — ArcBest Performing Arts Center in Fort Smith
COST — $20-$50
INFO — 452-7575, fortsmithsymphony.o…
FYI — Concert tickets include two free drinks at the Bakery District After-Party as well as the link to the live video streamed version of the concert. Streaming only tickets are not available due to music licensing restrictions.