Artists at heart: Conway symphony boasts diverse group

Members of the Conway Symphony Orchestra representing different countries: Flavio Unzueta of Bolivia (seated); Qiuyun Tian of China (standing, from left), Lidiana Vendrame of Brazil, Nelio Zamorano of Bolivia and Oksana Pavilionis (Russia). (Mike Kemp photo)

by Donna Lampkin Stephens

In myriad ways, diversity marks the Conway Symphony Orchestra — and that is good for patrons in the 501.

“We have such a diverse mix of nationalities within the musicians,” said Vicki Crockett, general manager of the CSO. “The relationship with the pre-professionals playing alongside the professional musicians is another strength.  Both of those make us a unique organization and make a difference, I think, in the quality of the performances we present.”

Israel Getzov, music director and conductor of the CSO, agreed.

“Especially when we’re dealing with art music from different countries, it gives us a different perspective and allows us to really understand, to live the differences in culture that we try to emulate in the art,” he said. “Part of our mission is training the next generation of artistic knowledge, and our younger musicians bring life, joy and enthusiasm to the table that really influences our more experienced musicians.

“I think that the understanding — having people from different cultures and understanding different ways of looking at life, and knowing that there is not just one way to do things, to live, to play — allows us to really understand the essence of the art we’re performing and to really bring out what is special and unique about each work.”

According to, the mission of the CSO is to “provide inspired classical music experiences for the people of Central Arkansas through performances and education.”

Among the CSO’s approximately 70 musicians, Getzov said about 15 are international. The roster includes musicians from Taiwan, China, Bolivia, Greece, Poland, Ukraine, Mexico and Brazil.

While country of origin is one measure of diversity, two-thirds of the CSO is classified as pre-professional, typically University of Central Arkansas music students. They play alongside professional musicians from across the region— many of them faculty from the University of Central Arkansas Department of Music. That mixture also adds to the richness of the CSO.

“We have professionals who have played a piece thousands of times, and they bring that expertise,” Crockett said. “But they are also sitting on the stand next to someone who is fresh and maybe playing the piece for the first time who brings new energy to it. They feed off each other.

“Students are learning right next to their mentors and teachers, and because of them, the mentors are able to experience the piece in a new way.”

The CSO and UCA are marking their 10th year of a relationship with East China Normal University in Shanghai that has paid dividends for all involved.

“They’re sending us exchange students to play in the Conway Symphony, but once they come here as an undergraduate for a semester, many return to be full-fledged graduate students at UCA and earn their master’s degree,” Getzov said. “It’s a strong statement about our program that they want to come back here and learn more.

“We have very strong connections in China and Taiwan. They are our legacy countries. Not to say we’re not doing others, but there are a lot of resources there. But over the last three years, we’ve really increased our connection to Central and South America. Mexico and Bolivia are the new frontier for us.”

Selva Aliss of Bolivia is a UCA student and member of the Conway Symphony Orchestra. (Mike Kemp photo)

To that end, 14 Bolivian music students are studying at UCA — orchestra members as well as five pianists, a singer, an oboe player, four cellists and three violinists.

“We also have two young Bolivian musicians who are assistant conductors,” Getzov said.

First-semester graduate student conductor Isaac Terceros is director of the Philharmonic Orchestra of Santa Cruz, Bolivia.

Getzov said a good number of the students, especially the new ones, are in their mid-to-upper 20s, a bit older than the traditional.

“That has led to a different culture as well,” he said.

Getzov said China had more university programs that the CSO and UCA can recruit from. It’s a bit different in Bolivia.

“There are more professional orchestras there,” he said. “They don’t have an undergraduate degree in music, and that benefits us. But we’re also working with their musicians to potentially help them establish undergraduate programs there.”

He travels about once a year to China and to South America.

“It’s all about building these relationships,” he said. “I go back to these countries and see the people who have studied here as well as their students. It really becomes self-perpetuating.”

In his 14th year with the CSO, Getzov continues to relish the experience.

“It never gets old because the people change and the music changes,” he said. “Our goal is to continue to grow the program and move forward and become better all the time.”