‘Awesome’: Conway Symphony rocks community

The Conway Symphony Orchestra presented a special performance during its Christmas concert. (Blake Tyson photo)

by Gunnar Bartlett

On Dec. 7, it is quite possible you heard screaming Van Halen-esque guitar solos and the pounding of drums emanating from Reynolds Performance Hall at the University of Central Arkansas as the Conway Symphony Orchestra paid tribute to the yuletide rock-opera giant, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. 

Founded by the late Paul O’Neill, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, at its inception, had a straightforward goal. “The whole idea was to create a progressive rock band that would push the boundaries (of the genre) further than any group before…way, way further,” explained O’Neill.

I remember at 12 years old my mother taking me to see TSO for the first time. The performance I witnessed in North Little Rock shook me to my core and I single-handedly attribute that performance to sparking a desire within me to be as good as the drummer in the group. 

Fast forward 13 years to a conversation between CSO Music Director/Conductor Israel Getzov and myself as we were programming the 2019-20 season. Izzy and I kept asking ourselves, “What are we going to do with the Christmas concert? What will make it refreshing?” My mind immediately snapped to the idea of a TSO tribute concert. I threw out the idea halfway jokingly to Izzy and expected immediate push back, but there was a pause followed by, “Well, that could work. If you can pull it off, we’ll do it!” 

From that moment, the planning began. 

The first call was to an agent friend who forwarded me to TSO’s management. I explained the vision to them, and mentioned that the CSO is a non-profit music performance and education organization serving Conway, and they bought in. Not only did they bless the performance, they provided the original music to make it happen. 

I was floored. I called Izzy to tell him, “It is happening. We got the music.” He couldn’t believe me; well, up until a week later when the email arrived containing all of the original scores! I began making calls to Preston Palmer to help me find musicians, a production crew, sponsors, etc. Preston’s business, Palmer Music Co., even chipped in as a co-sponsor with Conway Corporation for the performance because the vision spoke to him and his mission. 

Each day the project became more real. It got bigger and bigger, and then the rehearsals started. After the second rehearsal, my eyes lit up – we were going to pull this off. The next two weeks flew by and then it was concert week. 

Our friends, Mark Malone and JC Petty at Solid Rock Audio, loaded in at Reynolds Performance Hall and began to make the stage come to life. All of the lighting, the PA, the staging, everything; it looked so real and professional. On Friday night, before the performance, we had our sound check and dress rehearsal with all of the effects. One thought kept circling in my mind, “This is going to be awesome.”

Fast-forward to Saturday night, it’s concert time. I’m not a nervous performer, especially having been in this industry for over a decade, but this one started to make me nervous, not due to our collective ability as musicians to pull off the performance, but more so how it was going to be received by our patrons. I noticed more and more older generation patrons filing through the doors into the performance hall and I thought they were going to hate it. 

After the symphony successfully pulled off Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Ballet” with the Arkansas Festival Ballet, it was time. We took one last deep breath and all took the stage. Cue the lights, the music and the theatrics. We were loving it, but there was some mild hesitation in the first tune. The hall went dark after the final note and the entire hall roared into applause, a level of applause I have not once heard at a symphony concert in seven years of performing with this organization. The mood on stage just shifted; we knew they wanted more, so we gave it to them. The entire performance went off without a hitch and the audience of all ages loved it. 

The CSO had two questions that needed to be answered by doing this performance: Can we pull this off? And, will it be well received? The answer to both was a resounding yes! 

We also made it a priority to show that every aspect of the show was “homegrown.” The musicians on stage that night were from the Central Arkansas area, many of whom studied music at UCA at one point or another, including our 20-plus string musicians on stage who are current students in the UCA Department of Music. The production crew, Solid Rock Audio, is based right here in Conway. 

Doing this performance proved to the Conway community that the CSO can do these types of shows right here with local artists. We have the talent. We have the resources. We have the vision.

We hope to see you at our many other performances and that you look forward to the CSO’s 2020 Christmas production – I can promise you it will be bigger and even better than the last.

Editor’s note – 

A graduate of Morrilton High School and the University of Central Arkansas, Gunnar Bartlett is director of development for the College of Fine Arts and College of Liberal Arts at UCA. He serves on the board of directors for the Conway Symphony Orchestra and is the chair for marketing and audience development.