Orchestra delights in season’s 1st night

Geoffrey Robson starts his tenure as music director and conductor of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra this weekend. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Hicks)

One thing is for sure: The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra got its money's worth when it hired violin virtuoso Jennifer Frautschi for the season opener Saturday night.

She soloed twice, for French Romantic Ernest Chausson's "Poème, Op. 25" that closed out the first half and Little Rock Native Florence Price's Violin Concerto No. 2, composed a year before her death in 1953.

Frautschi is a joy to watch, and she and the orchestra are a pleasure to hear. With it began Geoffrey Robson's tenure leading the orchestra as music director, promoted since he started as an associate conductor and section violinist 15 years ago. He knows how to put a repertoire together, and he knows the orchestra.

After decades of renting a headquarters and performance space, this season stands to be the last before the orchestra's own 20,000-square-foot, $11.75 million Stella Boyle Smith Music Center is to open next September.

I anticipate seeing his and the orchestra's congruence together at the overlap between eras beginning and ending.

Gioachino Rossini's overture from his opera "La gazza ladra" opened the show, a popular crowd-pleaser that came together around cool dynamics at the midpoint, after which the strings came alive and it flowed. The sections melded, each spinning out its part to push the piece to its conclusion. Robson warned that the Chausson piece would be melancholy, and it was, though Frautschi's handling of the slippery material and her synergy with the rest of the band demanded attention as the piece played out.

Price had the great 20th-century American composers' gift of rounded reflectiveness and warmth, with the broadness of Aaron Copland and the pop-intellectual pastiche of Charles Ives at his best. Frautschi bounded through her material, and her connection with the orchestra only got better.

"Pines of Rome," Ottorino Respighi's masterpiece, is "a musical tribute" to the Eternal City, Robson said, "and a journey through time," starting sonically in the present before visiting the Renaissance, the early Christian era and the peak of the Roman Empire, while also suggesting an advance forward through the day, into afternoon, an evening Mass and before the dawn.

It's bright to brooding, a resonant darkness then swirling wakeful dreaminess, finished with recorded birdsong and an expression of imperial might, as though a triumph is passing -- which, of course, it is.

This is Arkansas' orchestra, accessible in its choice of music, but never making choices that don't aesthetically ask something of, and reward, its listeners. When they open with "The Star-Spangled Banner," it's jaunty and place-setting, not elegiac or jingoistic. The tickets are economically accessible, and yet there are empty seats.

Robson and his performers have something to offer, and I hope the word gets out about them as the season advances and the two bring out the best of each other. Their music center will assuredly be full during its opening gala; my hope is that the orchestra brings material that fills every seat in the new era ahead.

A 3 p.m. Sunday matinee of the show is scheduled at the Robinson Performance Hall in downtown Little Rock; tickets are available at arkansassymphony.org.

Information for this article was contributed by Eric E. Harrison of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.