The Symphony of Northwest Arkansas didn't have to look far for its new executive director. Ben Harris, who most recently was SoNA's general manager, officially took the job Sept. 12.
Harris moved to Fayetteville in 2006 to complete his master's degree in music composition at the University of Arkansas.
"I had started my program at the University of New Orleans in 2005 but had to leave when Hurricane Katrina rolled through," he says.
He joined SoNA in 2012, serving as production manager, then director of operations and annual giving, before becoming general manager. He's also a founding member of the Fayetteville Jazz Collective and plays guitar in a local cover band called Full House.
"Ben's deep knowledge of both the inner workings of SoNA and key stakeholders across the region make him the obvious choice to lead the charge" as SoNA expands across Northwest Arkansas, Paul Haas, the orchestra's music director, said in a news release. "Ben has the charisma, charm, and grace -- not to mention the work ethic -- to lead SoNA into a new era."
Harris answered these questions for What's Up!
Q. Tell me about growing up?
A. I grew up in Pine Bluff, and I spent a lot of time in Warren where my mother's family was from. Music was a constant presence in my house growing up. My dad and my grandfather were both judges, but they were both very passionate about music. When my grandfather had to write an opinion, he would sit and play the piano while he worked it out in his head, [and] when he finished thinking through it, he would play the song "Margie," and my grandmother would bring him a legal pad to write it down. Her name was Marjorie, so that song was his way of letting her know that he was finished.
I was a very mischievous kid, and I would do anything to make someone laugh. My earliest heroes were Robin Williams and Eddie Van Halen, and I always thought that someday I would grow up to be a musician or a comedian. But I was definitely more drawn to music; when I was a kid I always wanted to be alone when I listened to music, it was always a very private thing for me because my imagination would just run wild.
Q. When did music first grab hold of you?
A. One of my earliest memories is seeing Paul Simon singing and playing an acoustic guitar on television. I don't remember how old I was, maybe 3 or 4, but I remember realizing that the sound of the guitar was coming from him and what he was doing with his hands. It was a big moment for me because it was the first time I really understood that the sounds that I was hearing were created by people, and that maybe that was something I could do.
Q. What did you intend to be when you grew up?
A. All I ever really wanted to be is a guitar player. The guitar is like its own little universe, and even after all these years I still get lost in it pretty easily. But I just love working in music; even if I'm not playing myself, I love being one of the moving pieces that makes the whole thing work.
Q. What did SoNA offer that made you want to work with them in the first place?
A. The first time I worked with SoNA, I was actually on stage with them. During their first season they did a concert with the Fayetteville Jazz Collective, a 17-piece big band that I play with. I handled all the logistics for the jazz group and worked closely with Paul Haas and Karen Kapella to put it all together. It went so well that after that concert they offered me the role of production manager with SoNA -- way back in 2012.
Q. How does the changing Northwest Arkansas arts scene affect SoNA now and going forward?
A. It's crazy how much the arts scene has changed in the 17 years that I've been in Northwest Arkansas. There's just so much more going on, so much more to do than there was when I first got here. There are a lot more competing events on weekends than there used to be, so I think everyone has to work harder than ever to draw attention to what they're doing. We are really fortunate to have a strong base of support for SoNA.
Q. What do you want SoNA patrons to know about you?
A. The biggest thing I want our patrons to know is how much I appreciate them. I appreciate them showing up and supporting us and recognizing the value of live music and the importance of music education. Without them we would have nobody to play for, and we do not take that for granted!
WHEN -- 7:30 p.m. Oct. 28
WHERE -- Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville
COST -- $36, $48 or $61
INFO -- sonamusic.org o4 443-5600