Learn. Practice. Rehearse. Perform. Repeat cycle.
That’s a fair summation of the life of a professional musician with the Kansas City Symphony. Theirs is a life of discipline and endless pursuit of artistic excellence.
Music director Michael Stern has hired 33 of the orchestra’s 80 musicians. Today The Kansas City Star focuses on five of the newest hires — the so-called “freshman class” — who are playing their first season with the orchestra. They include two violinists, a trumpeter, a cellist and a bassist. All are in their 20s or 30s in an orchestra with a median age of 42. The base salary is $52,744.
Their job is to contribute to an organization that brings music to the public on a demanding schedule that includes challenging but inspiring classics and easy-to-digest pop music. It may be an inelegant description for an organization dedicated to elegant artistry, but the Kansas City Symphony is the workhorse of the city’s major performing arts organizations.
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The Lyric Opera stages four productions in a season. The Kansas City Ballet stages six. Kansas City Repertory Theatre produces eight. But the Symphony performs virtually every weekend.
For 42 weeks, the orchestra performs classical works, a pop series, a family series, Christmas programs, concerts celebrating movie music and free happy hour concerts. In addition, it plays for the opera and the ballet, presents an annual concert in the Flint Hills and has made special appearances at some home games for the Kansas City Royals and the Kansas City Chiefs.
“Particularly at holiday time it is very intense,” said Frank Byrne, the Symphony’s executive director. “Last year in a one-week period we prepared three or four different programs. It’s an extremely intense schedule. You have to have this level of skill to power through all of those requirements and do it at such a high level.”
Each of the five freshmen were selected after an exacting two-day audition process in which musicians must play competitive rounds to become finalists.
“What we’re looking for is technical ability on the instrument, which is unquestioned,” Stern said. “But we look for something else — the musician behind the notes, not somebody who can simply, blindly execute a piece of music. You’re looking for personality and also a level of interpretive understanding which surpasses technical ability.”
Stern said he also looks for playing styles that will complement the orchestra’s overall sound.
“What we’re trying to do is reinforce a unanimity from all of us so that we can have this personality but also a concept of making sound and making music that’s going in the same direction,” he said.
The Symphony holds auditions only when there’s a position to fill.
“To perform at the level to win and keep a job here is like being a world-class athlete,” Byrne said. “It requires hours and hours of practice. It is a merciless occupation because you cannot cease to practice. Vladimir Horowitz used to say, ‘If I don’t practice one day, I know it; if I don’t practice two days, my wife knows it; if I don’t practice three days, everybody knows it.’
“I liken the audition process in some ways to the Olympics because it doesn’t really matter how many degrees you have or who your teachers were. What matters is how well you perform a specific piece of music on a given day.”
The auditions require the musicians to have “nerves of steel,” Byrne said. And they pay their way to the audition out of their own pockets.
“Consider the audition process,” Stern said. “It is usually two days and starts at 9 o’clock in the morning. We just had a bass audition, and we had 80 people coming to play for us. We’ve had auditions where more than 100 people applied for the same position.”
And occasionally the selection committee decides that none of the applicants meets the Symphony’s standards. Then new auditions will be scheduled, and the process starts all over again.
“Yes, it’s happened,” Stern said. “Because we are not going to hold the future aspirations of the orchestra hostage to the pressure of feeling like, ‘Well, it doesn’t really matter, we can hire anybody.’
“You get to know these people pretty well. When you look at the freshman class, all of these five people are such fantastic citizens in the orchestra. … We’ve done due diligence, but we’re also lucky. These people are coming to work. They’re coming to contribute.”
The selection process also involves intangibles.
“You want somebody who can play the notes, for sure,” Stern said. “But we’re looking for what they do between the notes. That’s where the power of music, the magic of music, the language of music happens.”
As an orchestra and an organization, Stern said, the Kansas City Symphony is riding a crest.
“The Kansas City Symphony is a happy band,” he said. “We have a wonderful relationship among the administration, the board and the players. Everyone has unanimously agreed to do something exceptional. … It’s a golden moment for the Kansas City Symphony.
“And one of the secrets of that success is the quality of the spirit and shared enthusiasm and affection for the craft and the art that is absolutely epitomized by these five.”
The Symphony performs Brahms’ Violin Concerto and Beethoven’s Fourth with guest violinist Vadim Gluzman on Feb. 5-7. A free “happy hour” concert of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” will be performed at 6 p.m. Feb. 10. Amy Grant performs with the Symphony and guest conductor Steven Reineke on Feb. 12-14.
Performances are in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Call 816-471-0400 or go to kcsymphony.org.