Kansas City Symphony: Fanfare for an uncommon orchestra

For a city whose civic pride is tied so closely to the fates of its professional sports teams, this has been a dismal year.

Although our soccer team made a late-season run (thud), our baseball and football fortunes have ranged from deep disappointment to profound embarrassment.

But there’s another professional outfit in town — a team of skilled, sometimes athletic, frequently dazzling performers who have made in the last year or so a genuine, inspired claim on our collective heart. Yes, I’m speaking of the Kansas City Symphony.

Wouldn’t it be something if, beyond the rabid arts community, the city at large recognized and gave thanks for what we have grown here?

The Symphony has been on an upward trajectory for several years. Since Michael Stern arrived as music director about seven years ago, much of the effort has gone into retuning, refining and reorienting the orchestra in anticipation of its move to Helzberg Hall in the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

Among other things, Stern split the violins to place them on either side of the stage (not everyone approves) and moved the lower strings — cello and viola — together into the center. In every rehearsal I heard last year he exhorted his musicians to relax and play with less of the force they were used to delivering just to be heard in their previous longtime home, the Lyric Theatre. It didn’t take long to realize after the Kauffman Center opened last year that all that work had paid off.

The acoustically rich Helzberg stage has showed off the maturing talents of the orchestra in deeply satisfying ways. In concert after concert, the colors, the energy, the emotional resonance of the music at hand — from favorite classics to music of today — have seemed more intense and more penetrating than ever seemed possible in the Lyric.

Significantly, as troubling financial news emanates from once vaunted concert halls in Philadelphia, Atlanta and Minneapolis, the contrasting fortunes of the Kansas City Symphony, a medium-sized orchestra in our humble, medium-sized city, have been nothing short of remarkable.

Sure, our Symphony musicians make less money than they might in other places, but stability, excitement and appreciative patrons, including the unsung generosity of Symphony president Shirley Helzberg and her family, go a long way toward making up for that. (Just for the record, this year’s Symphony budget of about $13.5 million would cover the annual salary of only one of the Chiefs’ top-paid players.)

Symphony officials are feeling good. And with good reason. They loved all the attention they got in their inaugural season. Record ticket sales. Glowing reviews. A KCPT/PBS program that celebrated home-grown opera star Joyce DiDonato’s stirring appearance with Stern and company.

Recently they put out a book of photos commemorating the Symphony’s first subscription season in Helzberg Hall, selections from which are found on these pages. (Oddly, the book and photos ignore the Symphony players’ significant role as the musical foundation of the Lyric Opera and the Kansas City Ballet pits in the adjacent Muriel Kauffman Theatre. Oh, well. Smallish point in context.)

There’s more to appreciate and understand about the Symphony and its growing presence on the local cultural landscape. In addition to its subscription and pops concerts, the Symphony in recent weeks has begun three casual, low-cost or free weeknight series, offering accessible music and perhaps a glass of wine with which to attract new audiences.

And its contributions to music education and awareness among thousands of area schoolchildren are essential in the shaping of young minds, future musicians and civic leaders.

Chen Yi, a celebrated composer on the faculty of the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance, applauds the Symphony’s engagement with her school. She credits Stern and the conservatory’s dean, Peter Witte, with sharing a commitment and a vision for taking the orchestra’s influence deep into the community.

Chen Yi also recognizes how, in her 14 years here, the Symphony has evolved and matured. Her sparkly new work, “Fountains of Kansas City,” got its world premiere in the Symphony’s opening concert last season.

“I think they sound better and explore more repertoire and are more articulated,” she told me the other day. “And they have appointed some very strong musicians.”

Those standouts include not only new principals in various sections, but also string players and others who have come to town from more troubled orchestras elsewhere, she said.

Early this season, as I listened to the Symphony play the Mussorgsky-Ravel “Pictures at an Exhibition,” I was struck again by both the power and the delicacy that Stern and the Symphony’s 80-odd musicians bring to their game. And again, a few weeks ago, as the orchestra traded contemporary composer Jennifer Higdon’s lyrical and astringent passages with its sextet of guest soloists, the chamber ensemble Eighth Blackbird, one could hear the Symphony as neo-moderns. You can hear every note, every instrumental voice in its place, and you can ride the dynamism on the edge of your seat from quietly plucked strings to full-throttle roar.

I’ve often argued that arts organizations and performers have missed the kind of boat that sports people sail on, the one built on numbers. Sports people can measure and dissect their activities in countless and endlessly ridiculous ways. Fortunes and fantasy lives are made on the stream of stats.

All Symphony musicians can do is show up and play their hearts out. No wins and losses, per se. No tape-measure home runs. No on-base percentages. Or unforced fumbles. Just talent and teamwork and playing till they tease a tear from your eye or take your breath away. Stern likes to talk about how he wants his musicians to get to the point that they are all breathing together. It’s a visceral thing and a sign of musical unity.

An audience can sense it, and we


in the Symphony’s first two seasons in Helzberg Hall. Kansas Citians who have not yet experienced the Symphony in its new surroundings can still take pride in the knowledge that something special and praiseworthy is going on with regularity inside the glass and concrete shell on the hill.

Perhaps some day they will come to agree that civic identity can be shaped not by the failures of uniformed men on green lawns, but by the strokes of violinists, by the plaintive sounds of our reed players, by the dancing rhythms provided by the folks at the back of the stage with sticks and mallets. Go Symphony. Breathe on.