Sweet melodies are soon to fill the air in Little Rock’s East Village, which will become the first permanent home of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra when the Stella Boyle Smith Music Center opens there next summer.


“I am so grateful,” said Christina Littlejohn, CEO. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a part of, and I’m excited about the new music center serving the community and state for generations to come.”


She said the nearly 20,000-square-foot facility will accommodate 200 to 300 people and feature a grand hall, two group rooms, four private practice rooms, a broadcast recording studio, offices, a catering kitchen and storage space.

The new center will provided dedicated practice spaces for students.

The music center was designed by WER Architects in Little Rock, and the builder is Bailey Construction in Little Rock, she said. She added that the project cost nearly $12 million, including an endowment to operate the building.


The ASO launched a capital campaign to fund the building in 2019. More than 200 people, including about 50 musicians, have donated to the project, she said, adding that the ASO received a $1.5 million challenge grant from the Windgate Foundation that was awarded if the ASO raised $3 million.

Littlejohn gave credit to the Crescendo Committee for helping raise the donations. In addition to the Windgate Foundation, other impactful donors include the Stella Boyle Smith Trust, Susie and Charles Morgan, Terri and Chuck Erwin, Simmons Bank, Gus Vratsinas, and Jim Wallis and Pat Becker Wallis.


“With the campaign, we were making progress, and then COVID hit, so there have been several times during the last four years that we have been like, ‘Oh my gosh, are we ever going to make it?’” she said. “So there have been some people that have helped make sure we really get through those humps.”


The ASO has also been able to grow its annual fund while raising money for the new center, she added.


“[The donors are] a lot of wonderful, generous people that have been involved with our organization for a really long time and want to make sure that this project happens for their grandchildren, and they want their children and their grandchildren and their children’s grandchildren to be able to participate and make music in this facility, as well,” she said. “Several of these people that were the leaders have been involved for 40, 50 years, and this was really important to them.”


Littlejohn said she is glad that the community orchestra and students of the E. Lee Ronnel Music Academy will be able to use the grand hall.


“We have close to 200 children that participate in youth ensembles that we do, and so those kids will have a place to rehearse, and then we also teach children violin, viola and cello in our string academy,” she said. “Our young string players will have a professional spot they’ll be able to practice and do recitals in. Currently, we’re just on top of each other.”

aso symphony orchestra

The ASO is currently housed at the St. John Catholic Center at the Diocese of Little Rock.

The ASO is currently housed at the St. John Catholic Center at the Diocese of Little Rock, and staff members’ offices often double as practice rooms for private lessons, she added, and students have had to practice outside when there was a chance of rain. She said she herself has had to write a grant while an instructor teaches a private lesson in her office, and several people have offices in a hallway.


“There’s just not enough room in our current space to accommodate anybody who wants to learn an instrument and play an instrument,” she said. “The new space will have a grand hall, so the orchestras can rehearse there, and then we’ll have two group rooms, so the violins will have a place to go, or the cellos … they can be practicing and rehearsing at the same time something else is happening.”


Furthermore, the offices are not accessible to people who have disabilities, she said.


“We had a cello player who is 106 now, but she had to quit playing with us when she was 104 because she couldn’t get up the steps anymore with her cello,” Littlejohn said, “which is crazy, like, I don’t know how she got up here at 104 with her cello, but she did.”


The ASO has been headquartered at the diocese for at least 30 years, she said, adding that it is the only nonprofit organization there that is not associated with the Catholic church. One of the main benefits of the diocese location is a hall that is large enough and has a high enough ceiling to accommodate the youth orchestra.


She said it is exciting that multiple groups will be able to practice at the same time. Equally exciting is the climate-controlled storage space that will house the orchestra’s library, its percussion instruments and a Steinway piano that is currently stored in Mayflower, she said.


“We have a music library that’s got scores that the organization has had for over 50 years,” she said. “We’ll have a proper space for that. A huge one of an orchestra’s assets is the library, and so we’ll have a really nice space for it, a really nice space for our instruments.”


The center also includes additional shell space so that it can expand as needed.


“We’re not exactly sure which area’s going to grow first,” she said. “If we need more group rooms or we need more private space or if we need more room for I don’t know what, there’s a little bit more room for expansion,” Littlejohnn said.

The new center will include a performance hall and a recording and broadcast studio.

Littlejohn said the broadcast recording studio was not part of the original design but instead came about because of the COVID-19 pandemic. During that time, the ASO live-streamed lessons from its current space and allowed students to make recordings for auditions there.


The ASO also recorded its annual children’s concert and distributed it to teachers during the pandemic. Geared toward children in fourth and fifth grade, the concert normally draws about 2,000 children from across the state, she said, adding that 23,000 children were able to access the recorded concert. She said the ASO plans to continue recording the concert so that more children have access to what may be their first time hearing an orchestra.


“I’m really excited because 100 years ago, Stella Boyle Smith had the idea of starting an orchestra, and she had musicians who came and played in her living room,” she said. “So the first concert was in Stella Boyle Smith’s living room about 100 years ago, and now, with the new Stella Boyle Smith Music Center, we’ll be able to broadcast the Arkansas Symphony into everyone’s living room across the state of Arkansas.”


She added that the ASO also plans to stream its performances to nursing homes, hospitals and other places where occupants may not be able to physically visit the ASO.


She said she hopes the new music center will allow the ASO to build on existing programs such as the Bucket Man Group, in which children learn percussion by drumming on buckets, and enable the ASO to start new programs, such as a children’s choir.

“The whole idea is being able to make music and create these opportunities for people of all ages, all stages of life, to make music together and form their own communities and have joy together,” she said. “It’s all about making joy.”


The music center will provide a venue for events such as the Opus Ball, the ASO’s annual fundraiser, she said, adding that she also hopes to conduct more concerts that feature small ensembles, such as string quartets, brass ensembles, drumlines or an experimental concert that mixes electronic music with a solo cello.


Having a dedicated performance space, instead of renting, will provide the ASO with more flexibility to host concerts at a range of times, such as lunchtime or after-hours, Littlejohn said. The ASO’s composers will be able to write for smaller ensembles, she added, and the ASO will be able to experiment using lights and screens.


“This space will allow us to really do a lot of experimentation because it’s our own space,” she said.


She added that the music center will be able to share the work of Arkansas musicians to out-of-state and international visitors to the Clinton Presidential Center.


“My hope is that we can help showcase more of Arkansas musicians and our rich tradition and heritage with music in our state,” she said. “By having a connection with the Clinton Library, having more international and national tourists, that will help us do that.”


Another goal is to highlight and nurture the work of contemporary Arkansas composers, she added.


“Can we start enhancing the work of our Arkansas artists who are here right now, our composers?” she said. “How can we maintain and sustain and grow that legacy?”


Bringing more people together through music is one of the top priorities of the ASO, she added.


“We really want to engage more people in coming to make music together,” she said.


Musical activities can help individuals overcome the loneliness that has become pervasive in America, she said, and there are plenty of musical Arkansans who can find camaraderie at the ASO.


“There’s a lot of people that played at some point in their lives, so are we creating a space where they can come back and play and get to know other people through music that’s an engaging, joyous place?” she said. “That’s important to us, and then the other thing that’s important to us, that we really want to aspire to, is being able to be a leading orchestra, to be an example of how an orchestra can truly serve its community.”


To that end, Littlejohn said, the ASO has met with members of organizations such as the Central Arkansas Library System and St. Mark Baptist Church in Little Rock to find ways to meet community needs. Both institutions have discussed providing music-based after-school programming to children through the ASO, she added, and the ASO has reached out to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock about collaborations, as well.


She said the groundbreaking in August inspired her and other members of the ASO to make the music center a rhapsody of all kinds of community members who can come together to make music and appreciate the music of Arkansas.


“What we realized through our work with that was that we wanted to be a radically welcoming hub of musical activity for all Arkansas and that music can be all kinds of things,” she said. “Arkansas has got a tradition of the Ozarks [folk music]. Johnny Cash is from here. Florence Price, the African American classical composer, is from Little Rock. William Grant Still is too. We have a long, rich tradition of all kinds of music being here, so how can a music center reflect all of that?”


She said a performance by bagpipe players from Lyon College kicked off the groundbreaking, which also featured a drumline from Little Rock’s Parkview and Southwest high schools and a reception performance by 5 South of the Ozark Folk Center State Park in Mountain View. In addition, professional and amateur musicians from 6 to 106 joined in a pop-up rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”


“We really wanted all of the different musicians to be there for the groundbreaking to set us up and showcase that it will be a place for all kinds of music making,” Littlejohn said. 

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