Arts & Culture

Crescendo of guest artists at Symphony’s new home

Big stars! Big sounds! Big darn deal.

The Kansas City Symphony has unveiled its plans for the 2011-12 season, its first in the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, and everything about it feels like a buoyant musical journey.

For starters, there’ll be a parade of well-known guest artists helping to inaugurate the Symphony’s state-of-the-art performance home, the 1,600-seat Helzberg Hall.

Some of the marquee names joining the Symphony during the season, announced Friday: cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Emanuel Ax, violinist Joshua Bell, Kansas City-born opera superstar Joyce DiDonato and guest conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi.

At a press conference Friday afternoon, Ma and DiDonato sent video greetings expressing their excitement over joining music director Michael Stern and the Symphony in their new digs.

"Any season that includes an appearance by Yo-Yo Ma is very special," Stern said.

Musically the programs Stern devised will feature some of the boldest and grandest classics -- Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth, Gustav Mahler’s Second, Johannes Brahms’ "German Requiem" -- all meant to show off the abilities of the orchestra and its acoustically advanced new surroundings.

Three world premieres, celebrating Kansas City and its fountains, and classics never played by the Symphony will also be part of the mix.

Even the Symphony’s four-event Pops Series next season has a to-the-stars aura: One program will feature scores from great science-fiction fare, incorporating dramatic narratives read by "Star Trek" actor George Takei.

"I always like to push the envelope," Stern said of his classical selections. "On every program I am conducting, there is either a piece of interesting contemporary music, American music or little known music that deserves wider merit. This is by design. We are only complete musicians if we have that range.

"It is more interesting for us, and more interesting for our listeners. But it would not be possible if the orchestra were not as flexible and virtuosic as it has become, and that is why this season reflects more fully than any other until now why we deserve this great new hall."

All of the Symphony’s concerts will be played in Helz-berg Hall, ending a period of satellite shows at Yardley Hall and the Church of the Resurrection in Johnson County.

Stern and the Symphony’s board president, Shirley Bush Helzberg, repeated often-expressed expectations that the musical experience in the new space will be more intimate, moving and transformational than local audiences have ever enjoyed.

"It will be like playing in an oversized living room," Stern said. "You will hear all of this music revealed."

The Symphony will help christen the Kauffman Center during previously announced special events on the weekend of Sept. 16-18, which will feature performances by tenor Placido Domingo and violinist Itzhak Perlman.

Its own season will begin a week later, Sept 23-25. And it starts with a bang, or more specifically, Igor Stravinsky’s "Fireworks."

In addition, the first program will feature Ax, a local favorite, in a Beethoven concerto; Ottorino Respighi’s "Pines of Rome," which is guaranteed to give the hall a workout; and a new piece by Chen Yi, the globally active composer on the faculty of the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

She calls the one-movement work in progress "Fountains of KC" -- the initials standing for both the city and the Kauffman Center.

"I will express my excitement and impression inspired by the beautiful scenes of our city," she said of the piece.

Those anticipating the debut of the hall’s huge Casavant pipe organ will have to wait until June 15, 2012.

The program that weekend, next to last of the 14-concert classical series events, appears to encapsulate the key goals of the season.

Top-rank violinist Bell will solo in Edouard Lalo’s "Symphony Espagnole." The Symphony will play a world premiere by Stephen Hartke, titled "Muse of Missouri" (inspired by the downtown fountain of that name). And the organ will resound in the Camille Saint-Saens Symphony No. 3 in C minor, otherwise known as the 20th-century French composer’s "Organ Symphony."

As for other featured soloists next season, the Symphony looked no further than Parkville to present a rising star in its third concert. Behzod Abduraimov, the young winner of the London International Piano Competition in 2009, will make his Symphony debut, joining the orchestra in Sergei Rachmaninoff’s "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini."

Another emerging talent is Tianwa Yang. Already a prodigy in Beijing, she began turning heads in the U.S. and Europe a decade ago, at the age of 13, after she began to study with Isaac Stern, the violin great who also happens to be Michael Stern’s father. Yang will play Alexander Glazunov’s Concerto in A minor for Violin and Orchestra in an all-Russian program in November guest-conducted by Mexico’s Carlos Miguel Prieto.

The appearance of Dohnanyi on the podium is a coup, Stern said. He has worked with the conductor and known him for 20 years.

"He is one of the most esteemed and deservedly praised conductors in the world," Stern said, "and has reached a point in his career when there is no reason for him to accept any project that does not interest him because of his busy schedule or where he thinks he cannot make good music.

"The fact that he has accepted to come here is not only a testament to our growing reputation but also shows his generosity with his time and his belief in what we are doing."

Over the season the Symphony, winding up the third decade since its founding in 1982, will play a dozen works new to the orchestra.

Traditionalists will be happy to hear that those include works as old as Johann Christian Bach’s Sinfonia in G Minor, which dates to the mid-18th century. Add to that pieces by Beethoven, Joseph Haydn, Giaochino Rossini, Stravinsky, Alfred Schnittke and Olivier Messiaen.

But, in addition to the new pieces by Chen Yi and Hartke, the season also will introduce an up-to-the-minute work by Daniel Kellogg -- "Water Music," another piece inspired by local fountains -- and songs by Jake Heggie, which DiDonato will sing in March 2012.

Also on the schedule are the Symphony’s two holiday concerts: George Frideric Handel’s "Messiah," Dec. 2-4, with the Symphony Chorus and the Independence Messiah Choir, and the Christmas Festival, Dec. 16-18.

And a four-event family series includes programs Dec. 18, Jan. 29, April 22 and June 3.


Season ticket prices for the Classical Series will range from $234 to $759 each. (Seven-concert packages are also available.) Current season subscribers will be able to renew beginning Feb. 1. New season ticket sales will begin May 1. And, as usual, single concert tickets will become available by late summer.

For ticket information, call the box office at 816-471-0400 or go online to The website includes an interactive seating chart, with virtual views of the stage from various sections around the hall.