Arts & Culture

One giant leap for the arts

Oct 1, 2011. This will be something to see.

Some 1,600 people file into the oval bowl of Helzberg Hall, expecting to groove to the big-band bounce of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. It’s the opening subscription concert of the Harriman-Jewell Series.

A few steps away, 1,800 stylishly dressed patrons of the Lyric Opera settle into their places in the Muriel Kauffman Theatre for the opening night of a huge new production of "Turandot." Samuel Ramey, the big bass voice from Colby, Kan., is about to take the stage -- after all these years of fame -- in his Lyric debut.

Imagine the throng before the shows and at intermission. The glass-encased grand lobby of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts will resound with chatter and cheer.

And, round about 10:30 p.m. or so, just try to get into Extra Virgin or Webster House or Manifesto or the Grünauer bar or even that lovably scruffy artists’ haven YJs for a late bite or nightcap in the neighborhood.

The curtain is not yet up, but the seasons for some of Kansas City’s largest arts organizations have been unveiled, and their audiences have been learning what a new downtown cultural center really means.

The evidence confirms what we’ve all been expecting -- that the cultural life of the city will be turbocharged next fall, with the opening of the $413 million Kauffman Center.

World premieres of music and dance. Local premieres of gargantuan works. A galaxy of stellar talent in the wings.

Overall, the cultural seasons announced by the Kauffman Center’s three resident companies -- the Ballet, the Symphony and the Lyric Opera -- and two other presenting groups promise some major excitement.

"We’re set for a hell of a ride," the Ballet’s executive director Jeff Bentley said the other day, strolling out of the Lyric Opera’s press announcement of its season.

Anyone can make his or her own list of favorites from the news received so far. I’ll offer mine here, highlighting 13 shows scheduled for the Kauffman Center’s inaugural year, the shows most anticipated by my eyes and ears:

Sept. 23-25: While the Symphony will help launch the Kauffman during the previous weekend’s gala events, its season-opening concerts will be telling: Michael Stern directing the orchestra in its new home in a full-fledged maestro-made program for the first time. Superstar pianist Emanuel Ax will play Beethoven’s Concerto No. 4 in G Major. And there’ll be "Fireworks" by Stravinsky and the spectacular sounds of Respighi’s "Pines of Rome," which helps the Symphony set up one of its recurring themes of the season: "Fountains of Kansas City." First up with that task in this premiere concert is a new one-movement work by Chen Yi, the widely admired composer on the faculty of the UMKC Conservatory of Music, which commissioned the piece.

Oct. 1: The Lyric Opera takes up residence in the Muriel Kauffman Theatre by staging the biggest production it has ever mounted. Puccini’s "Turandot" corrals hundreds of singers, performers and silent masses onto the stage and, as artistic director Ward Holmquist noted the other day, it will employ the largest battalion of Kansas City Symphony players the Lyric has ever had in the pit. Add Ramey, the heralded basso; Lise Lindstrom, a leading "Turandot" soprano; and boundary-stretching scenic and technical design by R. Keith Brumley, and this becomes the mega-test of the Kauffman’s and the Lyric Opera’s abilities. Among new technical features of the opera experience: English translations of the libretto will appear on seat-back screens.

Oh, yeah. And there’s the matter of that trumpet guy on the same night. Sharp band. Helzberg Hall. Might need to plan an opera trip a few days later.

Oct. 14: The group has not announced its next season, but the Friends of Chamber Music confirmed word of a notable new show that it will produce at Helzberg Hall. "Charles Darwin and the Burden of the Mystery," an original multimedia stage show with chamber music, is being developed by local playwright Jeremy Lillig and Nancy Cervetti, an English professor at Avila University. Lillig is the Friends’ marketing director. Based on the 19th-century natural historian, the show will include music for string quartet, chamber choir and solo piano. It will feature actors Gary Neal Johnson and Kathleen Warfel and will be directed by Lisa Cordes. Most of the Friends series, to be announced in coming weeks, will remain at the Folly, but expect at least one more program on a Kauffman stage. More later.

Oct. 14-23: I’m not sure what Mark Twain would think of it, but if it made him money or pumped his reputation, I’m sure he’d be all for it. That’s at least in part what’s at stake when the Kansas City Ballet opens its first Kauffman season with "Tom Sawyer: A Ballet in Three Acts." Broadway composer Maury Yeston has been working on this idea for more than a quarter century, and now he and William Whitener are creating this monumental, Missouri-spawned story ballet.

Nov. 9: The Harriman-Jewell Series has long presented some of the great orchestras of the world, usually at the Music Hall. Now we’ll get to hear the likes of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and other great European ensembles in the acoustically rich Helzberg Hall. In this program, conducted by Fabio Luisi, the always magnetic Eroica Trio will join the Vienna players for Beethoven’s Triple Concerto.

Nov. 18-20: The Kansas City Symphony has a star-studded lineup of soloists booked for its first Helzberg Hall season. But this weekend, we’ll get to hear a pianist who is, at least in part, homegrown: 20-year-old Behzod Abduraimov, an Uzbek-born student of Stanislav Ioudenitch at Park University, will be soloist in Rachmaninoff’s "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini." The Symphony will also be playing an alluring survey of 20th-century modernism: Bartok’s suite from "The Miraculous Mandarin" (a longtime favorite of mine), Prokofiev’s suite from "The Love for Three Oranges" and Paul Hindemith’s "Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber."

Jan. 28, 2012: This will mark the 11th appearance by David Parsons’ dance company on the Harriman-Jewell Series, and undoubtedly the Kauffman Center setting will make for a poignant and electric night. The Kansas City native will give the local premiere of a new work -- it debuted in New York last week -- made in the memory of series founder Richard Harriman. No word yet on the rest of the program, but does it matter?

Feb. 3-5, 2012: Stern directs the Symphony in an evening-long orchestral work -- Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, "Resurrection." The orchestra has come a long way since 2003, when it last played Mahler’s Second, under the direction of guest conductor and permanent-maestro candidate Jahja Ling. Stern has been working on his band’s Mahler chops in recent years, so it will be a revelation -- if not a transforming resurrection -- to see how the Symphony makes its way through the trials and the thunder of the piece. And, of course, the Symphony Chorus, directed by Charles Bruffy, will add to the texture, as will soloists Jessica Rivera and Kelley O’Connor.

March 10-18, 2012: It was a bold and majestic decision on the part of Lyric Opera leaders. Ward Holmquist has been hankering to do his own "Nixon in China" ever since he served as a staffer for the Houston Opera’s premiere production in 1987. And now the Kauffman Center gives the Lyric the space and technical capabilities to put on this landmark American opera, with its pumped-up and riveting score by John Adams and libretto by Alice Goodman. Baritone James Maddalena and bass Richard Paul Fink reprise the roles of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, which they’ve been singing since the Houston debut.

Says the Lyric’s Evan Luskin: "We will be setting a new standard for regional opera companies."

This production of "Nixon in China" comes from Vancouver Opera, which launched it with a different cast last March. After the Kansas City show, it goes on to San Francisco Opera, Lyric officials said during their season announcement last week.

This week the Metropolitan Opera kicks off its own new production of the work, also featuring Maddalena and Fink, and we outlanders will be able to whet our appetite when the live HD broadcast from the Met hits local movie theaters at noon Feb. 12. (See for ticket information.)

Note to Cold War enthusiasts and Sino-Soviet observers: On the third night of the Lyric Opera’s "Nixon in China," the Soviet-era Red Star Army Chorus and Dance Ensemble goes to work next door in Helzberg Hall, as part of the Harriman-Jewell Series.

March 23-25, 2012: Local favorite -- well, OK, a favorite everywhere she goes -- Joyce DiDonato sings Rossini’s "Joan of Arc" with the Kansas City Symphony in Helzberg Hall. But more than that, she dishes selections from "The Deepest Desire," a song cycle that composer Jake Heggie wrote for her. Also on the program, it’s some kind of French connection: Haydn’s Symphony No. 85, said to be a favorite of Marie Antoinette’s, and a suite from Bizet’s "Carmen."

June 5-10, 2012: A previously announced theater series at the Kauffman Center includes the rock musical "Next to Normal," the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner for drama and 2009 Tony winner for score and orchestration. It’s presented by the Theater League. And just when you might have thought that the Kauffman hoo-hah was all about high-toned and heavenly experiences, here’s an antidote: A show (by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt) that centers on a suburban family’s difficulties with mental disease, suicide and drugs. Rock on.

June 15-17, 2012: A lot of music fans are eager to hear the new Casavant organ -- 5,500 pipes or so and a visual centerpiece of Helzberg Hall. Here’s the moment: The Symphony breaks it in with the Organ Symphony by Camille Saint-Saëns (a keyboardist has yet to be chosen). If that weren’t enough, violin superstar Joshua Bell returns to town to play Lalo’s "Symphonie Espagnole" for violin and orchestra, and Stern leads the band in a first hearing of another musical tribute to Kansas City fountains, Stephen Hartke’s "Muse of Missouri."

Not everything we want in cultural experience should be big and baublicious. Kauffman Center staffers are also at work programming their own series of entertainments, including presumably smaller pieces of music, theater and other kinds of events to be staged in every nook and cranny of the complex. Word on those programs is yet to come, though we’re likely to hear about them by spring.

And, of course, outside the Kauffman Center, on concert stages and in theater spaces nearby, the cultural product will surely sizzle, as it does even now. Small companies and competitive impresarios are likely to up their own games. One of the truly exciting things about Kansas City’s arts scene in 2011-12: In addition to the Kauffman Center, it’ll be happening all over town.

Steve Paul, senior writer and arts editor, 816-234-4762,; follow me at