The message on the phone was there waiting for me after a long day and longer week at work. The news was sad but not unexpected. Like the death of a dear aunt who had been putting up a good fight for years. The time to let her go in peace had finally arrived.
The only surprising thing about the call was that it should have taken so long in coming. When it did, it came in a voice familiar from my days -- and years -- writing editorials for the Pine Bluff Commercial here in Arkansas. The voice was gentle and genteel, the dulcet tones those of my old friend Diane Ayres, great lady and patroness of the local arts. She still spoke softly but clearly in the distinctive accent of her native Mississippi. If you have to get sad but inevitable news, that's the way to get it.
She was calling, she said, because she didn't want the news to take me by surprise when I saw it in the next day's paper: Pine Bluff's symphony orchestra was going to take its final bow after all these years, and better I should hear it from an old friend.
"It's sad," she said, "but good." Which was just like Miss Diane, as stoical as she is consoling. To every thing there is a season, a time to be born, and a time to die, a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted. And it was time for the improbable story of the Pine Bluff Symphony Orchestra, however heartening it had been, to end on a grace note. She had doubtless made the same call to many others whose family stories include ones about their involvement with the orchestra's ups and downs.
The symphony's final performance is to be next month at Pine Bluff's convention center -- in the same auditorium where it debuted in 1987, almost three decades ago. What a glorious night that had been. Imagine: One day an already slowly decaying old river town in the Arkansas Delta ups and decides to have a symphony orchestra of its own -- and then actually creates one, not just talks about it.
My daughter, now a matron with two little violinists of her own, would have her first gig with Pine Bluff's own, local orchestra. Like so many other graduates of the innovative strings program in that city's public schools, which has kept producing graduates who go on to win full music scholarships at various colleges.
How in the world did all that come to pass in this most unlikely setting for a symphony orchestra? As usual when it comes to good works in these latitudes, it was largely the work of the kind of Southern ladies who can accomplish anything once they've set their minds, and charm, to it.
Southern ladies are like that, or at least I hope they still are. One day they casually mention that the town could use an arts center or a library or, in this case, a symphony orchestra, and the next thing you know, you're buying season tickets. And the curtain is going up at the local convention center with all in readiness, and your daughter and her classmates at Pine Bluff High (Go Zebras!) are waiting for the first downbeat. It's a dazzling scene, but somehow you're not surprised, knowing Southern ladies.
It all comes together as graciously as an afternoon tea. Complete with those little cucumber sandwiches with the crusts removed. And the menfolk have no idea about all the trouble, planning, canvassing for funds and general behind-the-scenes maneuvering that's produced this grand night.
How did Pine Bluff's ladies do it? Beats me. You just take one banker's wife (Mrs. Ayres), the local strings teacher (Ellen Nuckolls) and another lady whom it was my pleasure to know (Carolyn Greenberg) and before you know it, you're watching a conductor lift his baton at the premiere of a symphony orchestra.Now that glorious night and the whole, improbable saga of Pine Bluff's own symphony orchestra is to be part of Lost Pine Bluff, an ever expanding collection of sights and sounds that ring like music and memory. Another local institution closes down as old Pine Bluff vanishes before our eyes. Like the tumbledown buildings on Main -- or the once prosperous stores that used to be crowded every Saturday
with field hands and tenant farmers in town to buy their provisions for the week, and maybe go to the movie show at the Saenger or Malco, other names from the town's past.
But now there is just not enough financial support from the local business community or in general to keep a symphony orchestra afloat, however fine it had been.
Talk about local institutions vanishing, the same night word about Pine Bluff's symphony arrived, somebody said the Sno-White Grill on Fifth was going out of business, too. Oh, the uptown cheeseburgers and local gossip that was once served there! All wish Bobby Joe Garner -- its prop., chief cook and dishwasher -- a happy retirement along with Mrs. Garner, who always seemed to be there, too.
How the Garners and the Sno-White will be missed, but Pine Bluff had long since become a source of exports and expats to the rest of Arkansas -- a place where folks come from rather than go to as the whole state's center of gravity, commercial and cultural and political, shifts to the growing northwest.
The moral of this story: Support your local symphony, regardless of your town's size; those in other little town in Arkansas, like Conway and El Dorado, continue to make beautiful music even as Pine Bluff's symphony joins the music of time.