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Arkansas Symphony launches music academy thanks to largest-ever donation

Daniel Breen
Arkansas Symphony Orchestra CEO Christina Littlejohn announces the creation of the E. Lee Ronnel Music Academy while speaking at the headquarters of Heifer International in Little Rock Tuesday.

Music education in Arkansas is getting a helping hand thanks to the largest-ever donation in the 56-year history of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra.

The undisclosed gift will help establish the E. Lee Ronnel Music Academy, named for the longtime arts patron who died in January at the age of 85.

CEO Christina Littlejohn says the gift will allow the symphony to put all music education and community engagement efforts under one program.

“With this gift, Lee has ensured a strong foundation for the symphony so that the city and the state can enjoy the artistry of professional musicians, orchestra concerts, high-quality music teachers, and a place for all of us to make and enjoy music together for generations and generations,” Littlejohn said.

Littlejohn grew emotional at times during Tuesday’s announcement, calling Ronnel an “inspiring, accessible, welcoming, transformational leader.” Ronnel was founder and president of the Little Rock-based Metal Recycling Corporation and served as board president for both the symphony and its foundation.

Ronnel was born Elias Itkis in Shanghai, the son of Russian and Ukrainian Jewish expatriates who were both professional musicians. His son Steve Ronnel says philanthropy and supporting the arts was deeply personal for him.

“It connected him to his concert pianist father who died so young, and it allowed him to honor his beloved mother, the piano teacher and music store owner, who he considered a woman of valor for bringing him to America and putting him on a path toward success in life,” Ronnel said.

“For Lee Ronnel, music was a guiding light and a source of stability and harmony through happy times and hardship. And he considered it his obligation to give back generously to the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra.”

The symphony's associate conductor and Interim Artistic Director Geoffrey Robson says teaching and making music are inextricably linked, and the gift announced Tuesday will help both continue for years to come.

“This gift will help us to sustain and grow the ranks of top-class performing artists who live in the community where they work, right here in central Arkansas, not just teaching children lessons but leading by example, performing, being present, playing music, and living out our ASO commitment to lifelong learning,” Robson said.

According to Robson, the symphony's Youth Orchestra is made up of students from more than 30 school districts across the state. He says over 200 students have taken part in lessons or group classes at the symphony's string academy this fall alone.

The donation comes as the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra continues to raise funds for the new Stella Boyle Smith Music Center, which will be located in downtown Little Rock. Littlejohn says they’re roughly $2 million away from their goal, and hope to break ground as soon as next April.

Daniel Breen is a Little Rock-based reporter, anchor and producer for KUAR.