Sunday, September 2, 2012

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: 'While others falter, John Jeter keeps Fort Smith Symphony sharp'

[Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: John Jeter (Photo by Jason Ivester)] 

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Staying on the upbeat

By Ron Wolfe
While others falter, John Jeter keeps Fort Smith Symphony sharp

This article was published today at 3:04 a.m.
Style, Page 47 on 09/02/2012 
 — Music director John Jeter waves away the attention that centers on him and his baton for conducting the Fort Smith Symphony.  “I can’t do anything by myself,” Jeter says. “I have to have 100 other people.”  Besides, he says, “I didn’t write this stuff.” Verdi and Stravinsky and company, they did.

But Jeter, 49, brings a new distinction to his 17th season with the symphony: This year’s Governor’s Arts Award, given to an individual artist, from the Arkansas Arts Council.  In more than 20 years, he is the first conductor to win the annual honor.  “In the past, we have honored a lot of visual artists, musicians and performers,” says Joy Pennington, arts council executive director. Jeter came out tops in the selection committee’s review of art-related accomplishments across the state.

“In a national climate where many orchestras are struggling or even gone out of business, the Fort Smith Symphony is thriving,” Pennington says. “And I think that has a lot to do with John’s leadership.”  
Jeter takes his place in formal wear, white tie, hair swept back in a silver gleam, lofting the violins with one hand, alerting the percussion, calling up a crescendo.

In this role, he has led the symphony to three recordings on the Naxos classical music label, expanding the group’s audience from the 86,000 residents of Fort Smith to listeners around the world.  
But elegance is only half the job. The other part, he barely admits. Along with being the symphony’s music director and conductor, he is also and officially - but you won’t see it on the program - executive director.

“Earquake!” is the symphony’s trademarked school concert for sixth-graders. Thundering with the clamor that only a symphony can throw at them, it ranks “in some respects, the most important concert we do,” Jeter says. The commotion comes with rock star-like video screens, and guest soloists the young audience’s age.  
“A 10-year-old walks out and plays a violin concerto,” he says, “and the kids are going, ‘Oh, my gosh. I could do that.’” He imagines some might try, and others are going to want to hear more.

Jeter’s degree in orchestra conducting is a master’s from Butler University’s Jordan College of Fine Arts in Indianapolis, where he developed the style he likens to flying an airplane.  “It’s about small adjustments,” he says, “reminding” the players of what he wants.
The new conductor confronted his version of outlaw territory: A rough orchestra. “The orchestra was not in the best shape artistically,” he says. “I was very focused on the orchestra.  It’s been a gradual ascent the whole time.” Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders agrees. “We have a marvelous symphony right now,” he says, so good that the mayor sends copies of the symphony’s recordings to companies he hopes to bring in.

Cities compete for new business in terms of utility rates and transportation, Sanders says, and then amenities - the finer points of life in Fort Smith, in which “the symphony plays a key role.”  
Sanders is a past member of the symphony’s board of directors, and his wife, Sandi, is the organization’s director of development. But the symphony’s success, the mayor says, centers on Jeter.  “We’ve got a terrific conductor,” he says.
Seventeen of the orchestra’s 80-to-100 paid musicians (depending on the concert) actually live in Fort Smith, he says. The others drive and fly in from states neighboring Arkansas and as far away as New York and Florida. Violinist Lori Fay of Fort Smith, associate concertmaster and one of the symphony’s 23 board members, tells how the assembly works. “People travel great distances for the opportunity to play with the Fort Smith Symphony under John Jeter,” she says. “John is a consummate musician and a very fair person."

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