Classical Music & Dance

2014 was a championship year in the arts, classical music

Opera singer Joyce DiDonato did a heroic job of singing the national anthem before game seven of the World Series at Kauffman Stadium in October.
Opera singer Joyce DiDonato did a heroic job of singing the national anthem before game seven of the World Series at Kauffman Stadium in October. The Kansas City Star

No doubt about it, 2014 was a banner year for classical music in Kansas City.

The big three — the Kansas City Symphony, the Lyric Opera of Kansas City and the Kansas City Ballet — continued to amaze with outstanding performances, and our presenters, like the Harriman-Jewell Series and the Friends of Chamber Music, brought us concerts by world-renowned classical musicians.

Smaller classical ensembles like the Bach Aria Soloists and the city’s impressive number of superb choral groups also made their contributions.

But the biggest classical moment of the year involved peanuts and Cracker Jack. More about that later.

First, a big welcome to Ensemble Iberica. The group, founded by guitarist Beau Bledsoe and devoted to early music from the Iberian peninsula, gave its first performance in July. At the time, I described Bledsoe as Kansas City’s Jordi Savall, and that’s no exaggeration. Like Savall, Bledsoe is a master musician who has a knack for creative programming and collaborating with the most interesting people.

The group’s inaugural concert was an auspicious beginning. The program of fado at the Carlsen Center’s Polsky Theater was one of the first times the Portuguese soul music was performed in the Kansas City area. Subsequent concerts have been just as intriguing, like the recent program of Kilmore carols, Irish Christmas music by way of Spain. Ensemble Iberica is a most welcome addition to Kansas City’s music scene.

Cellist Helen Gillet provided musical inspiration for the Owen/Cox Dance Group. The New Orleans-based musician plays her cello with an intensity worthy of a punk rocker … which is probably because she used to play in a punk rock band.

Her deeply felt music, which draws on her Belgian roots as well as jazz and classical music, was the soundtrack for “Memory Palace,” which Owen/Cox performed in June.

The Friends of Chamber Music continued to present rarefied classical music of the highest order. It’s true that chamber music concerts tend to be for cognoscenti, but occasionally there is a program that has strong appeal to a wider audience. One such concert was on Valentine’s Day, when 900 people filled the Carlsen Center’s Yardley Hall to hear the Venice Baroque Orchestra with countertenor Philippe Jaroussky.

Quatuor Ebène was another Friends of Chamber Music success. Marcy Chiasson, the Friends’ marketing director, described the quartet’s November performance at the Folly Theater as “killer, just ferocious.” In addition to Franz Joseph Haydn and Felix Mendelssohn, the ensemble performed jazz and the surf classic “Miserlou.”

Richard Harriman’s legacy glowed brightly in 2014. The Harriman-Jewell Series started the year strong with a performance in January by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Pinchas Zukerman. On the program was a violin concerto by Johann Sebastian Bach with Zukerman as soloist, and the main event was Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.

After hearing the Fifth countless times, it’s easy to let the iconic work wash over you. But in Helzberg Hall it was as though you were hearing it for the first time. The Harriman-Jewell Series has brought many international orchestras to Kansas City over the years, but this particular concert made me very grateful that we now have Helzberg Hall so we can hear these great orchestras in their full, technicolor glory.

In the fall, the Harriman-Jewell Series kicked off its 50th anniversary season. Clark Morris, the executive director of the series, has outdone himself with a roster of superstar talent. Already this year, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, the Kronos Quartet, the King’s Singers and the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas have performed. And just wait until the second half of the season.

As its president and CEO, Jane Chu led the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts from its planning stages through its first successful years. In 2014, President Barack Obama took note of her accomplishments. In June, the Senate confirmed his appointment of Chu as chairwoman for the National Endowment for the Arts. It was a proud for Kansas City’s arts community.

Paul J. Schofer, the former vice president of operations and chief financial officer for the Kauffman Center, was named Chu’s successor. His superlative financial background will serve him well as he guides the Kauffman Center through economic ups and downs.

The Kauffman Center is certainly a dazzling building, a civic icon. But it would be just a pretty shell if it didn’t have great music to give it life. Luckily, Kansas City has the total package: two state-of-the-art concert halls and a symphony and ballet and opera companies that can take full advantage of all they have to offer.

The Lyric Opera of Kansas City continues to make great use of the technical facilities the Muriel Kauffman Theatre makes available. In April, the Lyric Opera gave us a frothy “Fledermaus.” The production for the Johann Strauss operetta was designed by R. Keith Brumley, a veteran designer for the Lyric and one of the arts community’s unsung heroes.

In November, the Lyric’s “The Italian Girl in Algiers” was filled with delightful buffoonery. Director Michael Cavanagh played up the cartoonish qualities of Gioachino Rossini’s opera, making the Italian girl an aviatrix who crash lands in Algeria in the 1920s. Rossini’s mirthful music and Cavanagh’s schtick proved a winning combo for the Lyric.

The Kansas City Ballet’s eye-popping production of “Alice (in Wonderland),” based on Lewis Carroll’s classic, was a huge hit with audiences in October. The candy-colored sets and costumes and creative choreography took the prim Victorian miss on a phantasmagoric thrill ride.

This was the last year for Todd Bolender’s “Nutcracker,” which had been performed by the Kansas City Ballet every year since 1981. It was a classy, classical version very much informed by the years Bolender spent as a dancer with George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. No cutesy gimmick, just solid Russian classicism. Devon Carney, artistic director for the Kansas City Ballet who will be presenting his new “Nutcracker” next year, has quite an act to follow.

The Kansas City Symphony, under the leadership of music director Michael Stern and executive director Frank Byrne, continued to be one of America’s classical music success stories.

At the end of the fiscal year on June 30, the Symphony reported that ticket revenues for the previous year increased by 16 percent, with ticket buyers coming from all 50 states and eight foreign countries. Attendance at Symphony concerts was up, with 96 percent of tickets for classical series concerts sold. The Symphony’s other series showed similar strong numbers.

In 2014, the Kansas City Symphony gave people a reason to be excited and buy tickets. Stern electrified audiences with many outstanding performances, including a spine-tingling Verdi Requiem. Another standout concert was in March when guest conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto gave a memorable account of Sergei Prokofiev’s music from “Romeo and Juliet.”

Opera superstar and beloved hometown girl Joyce DiDonato opened the Kansas City Symphony’s season in September with a ravishing performance of “Sheherazade” by Maurice Ravel. Those of us in the audience had no idea how soon she would be returning to perform in Kansas City, and we would never have guessed that baseball would be the reason.

The Kansas City Royals surprised many this year (especially those of us who hadn’t been following the team for a while) by winning games. Once it became apparent that the Royals had an excellent shot at becoming World Series contenders, local singer and voice teacher Beth Kakacek Munce spearheaded a social media campaign to have DiDonato sing at a World Series home game should that become a reality.

It made perfect sense. After all, DiDonato was a true blue, longtime Royals fan — and, come on, who could sing the national anthem better? Facebook and Twitter were buzzing from Munce’s efforts, and she was able to present an impressive petition effort to Major League Baseball.

But there was major league disappointment. Sure enough, the Royals did make it into the World Series, but it was announced that country singer Trisha Yearwood rather than DiDonato would perform at the opening home game.

There was still hope, however, that somehow, some way, DiDonato would be able to sing at the World Series if it did not conflict with her busy, set-in-stone schedule, which included conducting a master class for eighth-graders at Carnegie Hall. Basically it would mean that the World Series would have to go for the full seven games.

With all the nail-biting drama of one of the Royals’ trademark extra-inning games, it turned out that there would indeed be seven games and that the Kansas City Symphony would play the national anthem at game six and DiDonato would sing it at game seven. Oh, nothing fated about this.

Kansas City’s beloved mezzo gave a heartfelt rendition of the national anthem that caused more than a few tears to fall. Unfortunately, the Royals lost that final game, even though victory was a possibility until the final seconds. But in the eyes of their fans, the Royals, with their perseverance, team play and heart, were still winners.

And for Kansas City’s classical music lovers, through the efforts of Joyce DiDonato and our entire illustrious team of classical musicians who play their hearts out for us all year long, 2014 was most definitely a championship season.

Patrick Neas is program director for You can reach him at