By Rick Kennedy, managing editor
An estimated crowd of 817 heard a powerful seasonal and expeditious performance from the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra from Little Rock at Hempstead Hall in Hope on Tuesday night.
Themed as “Home for the Holidays” in about one hour’s time, the 52 talented musicians played through a series of 10 classic Christmas standards, with three soloist performances, and two Henry Mancini-inspired arrangements, as well as a surprising on-stage tribute to Hempstead Hall’s Dolly Henley by the associate conductor, Geoffrey Robson.
Robson noted that six years ago, the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra was one of the very first concerts in Hempstead Hall when it opened six years ago, and Tuesday night, he noted was Henley’s last concert as Hempstead Hall’s director; he called for the crowd to give her a standing ovation.
Henley confirmed afterwards that after being asked to stay an additional six months last summer that she was retiring for good in January 2019, and she said she was surprised by Robson’s tribute. Henley also met with Robson briefly after the concert as he prepared to return to Little Rock.
The vocal performances included two selections, Silver Bells and White Christmas, by soloist Vernon di Carlo and one by New York-based soprano Maria Fasciano, who sang the spiritual O’Holy Night.
In addition to the influences of Mancini with performances of Joy and Christmas Rhapsody, there were standards by Irving Berlin, John Philip Sousa, George Bizet, and Russian composer, Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov.
The concert was also the gift of music for 91 Hope High School and 37 Prescott High School students, many of whom were performers in their respective high school bands and music classes. A couple of week’s ago, Henley had approached the Hope Tourism Commission for $2,500 to promote the concert, but also with a part of the funds to purchase tickets for the students to attend.
For some Prescott students, Tuesday’s night concert was their first visit to Hempstead Hall, and many stayed around afterwards to take pictures near the Hall’s big Christmas tree.
But even for the most talented musicians in the state, a huge Christmas catalog with so many holiday classics through the ages proved formidable for an hour’s time. Staying with a Christmas theme, the show, which was a co-sponsored production of the Southwest Arkansas Arts Council in Hope, could have been an easy two or three hours.
One omission, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker suite, immediately came to mind, but given the fairly light-hearted and fast-paced nature of night’s performance, Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer, could have qualified as a missing in action, too.
Still, a huge Tuesday night crowd in Hope was forgiving and appreciative as evidenced by the standing ovation the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra received at the end of the performance, and should the orchestra show up again in six years, there is not doubt they will be welcomed back with open arms.