Arts & Culture

KC Symphony’s show honoring the dead includes Mozart’s ‘three minutes of perfection’

Michael Stern conducts the Kansas City Symphony.
Michael Stern conducts the Kansas City Symphony. Todd Rosenberg Photography

It was 10 years after Franz Schubert’s death that his Symphony No 9, known as the “Great,” was given its first public performance.

Schubert’s brother, Ferdinand, showed the score to composer Robert Schumann, who presented it to Felix Mendelssohn, who, in turn, conducted the first performance in Leipzig in 1839. It’s acknowledged as perhaps Schubert’s greatest masterpiece and one of the greatest symphonies ever written.

The Kansas City Symphony conducted by Michael Stern will perform Schubert’s Ninth and the Kansas City Symphony Chorus will join the symphony for music by Bach, Mozart and John Adams Nov. 16-18 at Helzberg Hall.

Stern says that he is prepping the audience for Schubert’s mystical symphony by presenting three works on the first half of the program that will set the spiritual mood: Bach’s “O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht,” Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus” and Adams’ “On the Transmigration of Souls.”

“The Bach is a motet written for a funeral service that is not that often done,” Michael Stern said. “He wrote it in at least two different configurations, one for all brass in case the funeral service was outdoors, and the one we’re doing for strings and oboes, in case the funeral procession was indoors. But the whole idea of memorializing and remembering the dead flows directly into Mozart’s ‘Ave Verum Corpus,’ which is an extraordinary thing. It took him minutes to write, and it’s three minutes of perfection.”

“On the Transmigration of Souls” is Adams’ homage to those killed in the 9/11 terrorist attack. It’s a large work that uses an adult chorus, children’s chorus and tape. The piece opens with the sound of traffic in New York City and the incantation of the names of people who died.

“It’s a very haunting and affecting piece, as theatrical as it is musical,” Stern said. “It’s not so much a funeral service but a remembering of people who have passed on. In fact, even the title suggests they are in a different place, and that’s exactly the way I see the Schubert. The Ninth symphony is a piece that builds to a divine climax. So that idea of transcendence and moving to a higher place is also overtly expressed in the pieces of the first half.”

Stern says that even though some people criticize Schubert’s Ninth for being too long, he thinks it’s “absolutely perfect.” It was one of Schubert’s most innovative works, utilizing trombones like no symphony did before and, although the symphony’s thematic development is very much in the style of Beethoven, Schubert puts much more emphasis on melody. Not surprising, coming from a composer who wrote over 600 songs.

“It’s a majestic piece,” Stern said. “There’s not one note — not one — out of place. I struggled with the piece when I was very young because I didn’t understand it. It seemed repetitive in some places. The light bulb turned on with the realization that Schubert was first and foremost a songwriter. This symphony really is one long unabashed vocal line. If you take this enormous symphony as that, everything all of a sudden falls into place. It’s really pretty amazing.”

8 p.m. Nov. 16 and 17 and 2 p.m. Nov. 18. Helzberg Hall. $25-$85. 816-471-0400 or

‘High Fidelity Opera’

The Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s “Explorations Series” continues its creative programming to slake the thirst of opera fans between the Lyric’s main series opera productions.

On Nov. 17 at the Michael and Ginger Frost Production Arts Building, the Lyric presents “High Fidelity Opera,” two operas written for radio. Yes, there was a time when opera was considered worthy entertainment for the mass medium.

The Lyric’s extremely talented band of resident artists will perform Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Old Maid and the Thief” and Samuel Barber’s “A Hand of Bridge.” It’s a opportunity to hear rarely performed operas by two of America’s greatest composers. This is an evening for the musically adventurous.

7:30 p.m. Nov. 17. Michael and Ginger Frost Production Arts Building, 712 E. 18th St. $30. 816-471-7344 or

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