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The Maestro Marks 20 Years

The Maestro Marks 20 Years

The Maestro Marks 20 Years

Extraordinary symphony season celebrates music
director John Jeter’s two decades at the podium

The conductor of an orchestra marks musical time precisely, something John Jeter, musical director of the Fort Smith Symphony, is known to do quite expressively.

As for counting actual time, Jeter admits he may have missed a beat.

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“It’s gone by very, very fast,” he said of the two decades that have passed since he first lifted his baton in this city. “Probably because there’s so much planning involved. We plan three or four years out and time gets blurred.”

As a result of that planning, Jeter and the more than 100 professional musicians of the orchestra will open their season Sept. 11 with the most famous violinist in the world, Joshua Bell, as guest soloist. This concert will be the fastest sell-out in Fort Smith Symphony’s history.

Because this magazine and other media have been interviewing him about this milestone year, typically forward-thinking Jeter agrees to look back, if only momentarily, to 1996.

“I came and essentially auditioned,” he recalled. He had recently worked as assistant conductor with the Indianapolis Symphony, a role he characterized as “like being the substitute teacher – leadership without any authority. I absolutely didn’t want that ... not to have my own way, but because I prefer to be involved in a total organization.”

Here, he saw a potential for personal artistic satisfaction and heard encouragement from board members to develop the orchestra to even higher artistry. He took them at their word.

“It was a nice, small community orchestra, sort of a mix of budding professional and amateur. If you consider that the orchestra was founded in 1923 – there had already been a lot of growth and improvement between then and 1996,” he said.

“The first few years were some fairly significant change years,” he said. “It has really grown continuously since then. It’s measurable growth, both artistically and financially. We’ve always had in our minds that it will be sustainable growth.”

Today, a larger, fully professional orchestra performs six significant subscription concerts a year, with what Jeter describes as “A-list, incredible guest talent. Each concert is an event.”

Although he is always more focused on future seasons, Jeter named several seasons of the last few years as some he felt the orchestra’s audiences appreciated most.

“Some of the seasons that have been the most successful have had underlying themes. For the 90th anniversary, we were showcasing the orchestra. That went really well. In the season after that, called Greater Expectations, we revisited a lot of standard repertoire and people really liked that, too,” he said.

The most recent season held contrast within each performance and Jeter said audiences had positive responses as well.

“I think we are sensitive to entertaining the audience,” Jeter said, “and at the same time, we’re an artistic organization first and foremost. We want to present pieces they should hear.”

“One of the reasons the orchestra wants to play here is that we tend to do things off the beaten path. They get to come here and play something they’ve never gotten to do before,” he said. “You can expect more. It’s six times a year - it better be something,” he added, smiling. “I hate routine; in fact, it is a fault of mine.” It’s a “fault” that has made concerts diverse and exciting for the audience and the musicians.

The symphony has had the chance to present new works and to commission music from outstanding contemporary composers. It offered an original pops program in collaboration with a hometown composer and rock musicians: “History of Rock ‘n’ Roll” in 2012.

Besides performing for its home audience, the orchestra recorded the first-ever complete cycle of symphonies of African-American composer William Grant Still, on the prestigious Naxos classical music label. In the near future, the symphony will make another unique recording of works of an Arkansan composer who was a groundbreaking female, African-American figure in classical music, Jeter disclosed.

Teaching about music can extend to the concert audiences. Jeter created a pre-concert segment called “Beyond the Score.” He talks about the composers and music on the night’s program, cuing the orchestra to play particular excerpts for the audience to anticipate.

Beyond the concert hall

Cultural enrichment and education within its home community is a mission of the symphony is equal to its concert performances. Patrons also are underwriting ambitious youth outreach programs. Over the last 20 years, the Fort Smith Symphony has introduced almost 100,000 students to symphonic music in a free concert series called Earquake, performed for all sixth-grade students from seven area counties.

Joining Earquake is a new group called Storybook Strings, which plays musical interpretations of well-known children’s literature. An actor/narrator reads a story, accompanied by live music for string quartet composed by the symphony’s concertmaster, Elizabeth Lyon-Bailey.

Fourth-graders get to hear an exciting presentation of jazz, the American music form, from the Kool Katz ensemble of saxophone, string bass, percussion and keyboard.

Fifth-graders hear a string quartet, learn about stringed instruments and the elements of music in the Symphony in the Schools program. 

“We’re really trying to encourage kids to do something creative, even if they want to draw or write poetry – it’s important for their quality of life,” Jeter said. “Earquake is the most important thing we do.”

Fort Smith’s public school music programs have grown significantly in the last two decades, growth that retired superintendent Dr. Benny Gooden has credited, in part, to the symphony’s ongoing outreach.

None of this would be possible without the support of the community. Jeter has served for the past eight years as executive director with a direct role in development. Unlike many maestros on a lofty, spotlighted podium, he interacts with donors and audiences.

He’s always working toward greater artistic attainment for this symphony.

“We just hope it keeps growing,” he said.

This article appears in the July 2016 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine. 

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Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine, Online