The symphony returns to Northwest Arkansas on March 17

Photo: Dustin Bartholomew
New SONA music director Paul Haas

After an almost three-year hiatus, North Arkansas Symphony has a new name, a new music director, new management, a new mission, a new funding strategy, a new logo, a new website, a new Facebook page, and a new show coming up at the Walton Arts Center.

If you’re keeping score at home, that’s at least nine news.

After falling on difficult times in 2008, to the point that they had to cancel their last scheduled performance of the season due to a shortage of funding, The North Arkansas Symphony took a little break.

Recently, under the leadership of new executive director Karen Kapella, the organization has taken steps to pay off their debt, restructure, reorganize, and relaunch with a new name: Symphony of Northwest Arkansas (or SoNA for short).

The revitalized orchestra will return to the stage at the Walton Arts Center on March 17 with performances of Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor (feat. Liana Gourdjia, violin soloist), Joshua Penman’s Songs the Plants Taught Us and Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 E minor. New music director Paul Haas will conduct the show.

Haas, a 40-year-old graduate of Juliard School and Yale University, comes to SoNA after Kapella and the board of advisors conducted a nationwide search to fill the music director position. He hails from New York, where he has conducted the New York Youth Symphony, Orchestra of St. Luke’s, San Antonio Symphony, Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, among others.

He is also the founder and Artistic Director of New York’s ground-breaking concert production company of Sympho.

Haas has drawn attention from the New York Times and the Washington Post for his work, and has been lauded for his fresh approach to the symphony, and his efforts to engage audiences at his performances.

Engagement is a key word for Haas, and the objective of attracting a new audience to his performances and creating a meaningful exchange between audience and performer are some of his primary goals for SoNA.

“First we have to engage our audience by playing beautiful, emotionally charged music,” he said. “Secondly, I like the idea of our audience never quite knowing what to expect.”

So what kind of surprises does Haas have in store for his first concert with SoNA?

“You’ll have to wait and see on the 17th,” he said. “There will be surprises. Ways that we go about making music that aren’t novelties for novelties’ sake, but that make the concert three- and four-dimensional.”

Haas has auditioned talent for the new 75-member orchestra from seven states. After a blind audition process, however, more than half of the players in SoNA ended up coming from Northwest Arkansas.

According to Haas, that’s a testament to what he believes to be the enormous potential of the region.

“When I first landed here, coming from XNA, I realized that this is a special place with special people,” he said. “Business is booming, this is a region like no other, and given the kinds of people who are here, there is no reason that we can’t have a renaissance right here in Northwest Arkansas.

“I think SoNA could be a crucial piece in that effort to make that happen. Life is too short to set small goals for yourself.”

Symphony of Northwest Arkansas Opening Concert

When: March 17
Where: Walton Arts Center
Admission: $15-35, available at
More: SoNA website, Facebook page