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'A milestone moment' 

New music director Philip Mann debuts at the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra.

click to enlarge It's Mann's World: Phillip Mann debuts as Arkansas Symphony Orchestra music director this weekend.
  • It's Mann's World: Phillip Mann debuts as Arkansas Symphony Orchestra music director this weekend.

After a yearlong search for a new conductor and five months of building buzz about the upcoming season, the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra is finally ready to do what it does best — play music. This weekend, the ASO kicks off its season and begins a new era as music director Philip Mann conducts "New World," a program of popular American and American-tied music.

"This is a milestone moment in the history of the Arkansas Symphony," Mann said with hardly contained enthusiasm in an interview this week. "An appointment of a music director coinciding with the opening of a new season — these are the markers by which you measure a symphony orchestra and an audience."

The program, which includes Leonard Bernstein's Overture to "Candide," George Gershwin's "Piano Concerto" in F major (with renowned Gershwin interpreter Kevin Cole soloing on piano) and Antonin Dvorak's Ninth Symphony "From the New World," is one, Mann said, of "exuberant energy and youthful vigor." The Dvorak piece, which the Czech composer wrote on a sojourn in the U.S., provides an especially fitting metaphor for his debut, Mann said.

"It incorporates, much as my own career has and my own musical background, new voices from the new world, but remains firmly implanted in that great European, classical tradition."

Mann, 32, brings along a powerful resume for someone his age. Most recently the assistant conductor for the San Diego Symphony, he's a past winner of Vienna Philharmonic's Karajan Fellowship at the Salzburg Festival and a Rhodes Scholar, who, while at Oxford, won the school's annual competition to lead the University Philharmonia. He's conducted symphonies in Indiana, Ohio and Arizona.

His big-picture, long-term goal for his new job?

"I want to create the best symphony orchestra in the state of Arkansas. That sounds obvious. But what I mean is, I don't want to recreate the Vienna Philharmonic in Little Rock. I want to create the best Arkansas Symphony for Arkansas. That means taking the best of what we've observed from around the world and combining that by listening to what resonates w ith Arkansans."

Along the way, he said he's focused on three priorities. Number one: raising artistic standards.

"We have a great orchestra, but I think greatness is always at least partially defined by the pursuit of something even better. We'll be continually striving to raise the already established level of excellence."

Number two: Represent the ASO throughout the state.

"We have to find new ways for our musicians — whether as an orchestra, as a chamber ensemble, as individual soloists or even not in the capacity of musicians — to get out in the state to reach more people."

Number three, which Mann said works in conjunction with number two: Focus on outreach and educational programs. "The future of classical music lies in reaching younger listeners. The priority of our outreach is to show people the power of music, the power that music can have on their lives."

To that end, the ASO has already announced one new program: The Entergy Kids' Ticket, which allows students in grades K through 12 to attend each Sunday performance throughout the orchestra's season for free as long as they are accompanied by a paying adult. Reservations must be made through the box office.

Mann said he and his wife, Tatiana Roitman, a pianist who has a position at UALR as a visiting artist, plan to be visible in the community.

"We're excited to get to know the cultural scene in Little Rock."

If you meet Mann, don't feel obliged to talk about, say, the power of Gershwin. He's also a foodie who's just been an introduced to grits, an outdoorsman eager to explore Arkansas's fly-fishing waters and a sports fan who was able to rattle off Peyton Hillis' career-best stat line on Sunday.

Here's betting he doesn't have any trouble making friends.

Arkansas Symphony Orchestra "New World"

8 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday

Robinson Center Music Hall, $14-$48

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