Kansas City’s classical music scene was more vibrant than ever in 2017. The big three, the Kansas City Symphony, the Lyric Opera and the Kansas City Ballet, continued to present performances worthy of any major American city. Indeed, the Kennedy Center invited the Kansas City troupe to present its “Nutcracker” in Washington, D.C., last month to critical acclaim.
The two big presenting organizations, the Harriman-Jewell Series and the Friends of Chamber Music, brought a roster of artists as impressive as any in their history. Smaller organizations like the Bach Aria Soloists, Ensemble Iberica and our many choirs helped fill out the year with their own outstanding performances.
It has always been my contention that it’s the smaller ensembles and community orchestras that prove Kansas City is passionate about music. Many cities have a concert hall and an orchestra because they have to have them, like a zoo and a sports team. But Kansas City MUST have music. Music is as essential for us as air and food, the latter preferably being barbecue. 2017 was one of our most musical years yet. So let’s look back and remind ourselves of what a banquet of delights we had to enjoy.
Since becoming artistic director of the Kansas City Ballet in 2013, Devon Carney has been building the company so it could take on the large, challenging works of the ballet repertoire. In 2015, he presented his stunning new “Nutcracker.” Last year it was “Swan Lake.” In April, he completed the Tchaikovsky trifecta with a sumptuous production of “Sleeping Beauty.” The opulent sets and costumes were the perfect complement to Carney’s traditionalist choreography and conception.
The Kansas City Symphony, conducted by Michael Stern, continued its track record of one amazing performance after another, such as Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, a work not done in Kansas City in decades.
There were many other gems as well, too many to enumerate. A couple of standouts include two concerts featuring pianists. In June, Emanuel Ax performed not one but two Mozart piano concertos. In September, Natasha Paremski gave a jaw-dropping performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3.
It was a very good year for the Lyric Opera of Kansas City. The company put on the zany, crowd-pleasing “Pirates of Penzance,” but also provided meatier, cutting-edge works, such as Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking.” Based on the death row experiences of Sister Helen Prejean, “Dead Man Walking” explored crime and punishment, death and retribution.
November’s performance of “Everest” also explored primal themes of human survival. The operatic account of the tragic 1996 Mount Everest expedition took the audience to the roof of the world and on an inner journey, as well.
Cynthia Siebert offers only the best of the best on her Friends of Chamber Music series. In May, the Friends presented pianist Kirill Gerstein performing Brahms’ Sonata No. 2 in F-sharp Minor. A critic friend told me he was in awe of the perfection with which Gerstein and the music became one. The Friends capped off the year with one of the world’s great choral ensembles, the Tallis Scholars.
The Harriman-Jewell Series had an especially spectacular year, which is saying something. In October, the series presented Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony in Helzberg Hall for a stunning performance of Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4. Bruckner is a composer hardly ever heard live in Kansas City, and the audience was rapt.
After the concert, Muti told me that a conductor can always tell when an audience is paying attention. He said he was very impressed that he didn’t hear a single cough or any other sound for the entire hourlong symphony. Because of its audience and Helzberg Hall, Muti said, Kansas City has become one of his favorite destinations. Here’s hoping that he and his band will return soon.
In November, the Harriman-Jewell Series presented another legendary conductor, Valery Gergiev. The commanding Russian led the Stradivarius Ensemble, a pared-down version of his Mariinsky Orchestra. Gergiev drew a rich, full-bodied sound from the ensemble, but what made the evening especially memorable was Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos, a beautiful work rarely heard in concert. Performed by Stanislav Ioudenitch and Behzod Abduraimov, it was elegant and exquisite.
In May, I profiled Eryn Bates, the development director for the Harriman-Jewell Series. She also happens to be a wonderful musician who has done everything from sing with Kristin Chenoweth to accompany Oxford’s Gilbert and Sullivan Society. In June, I heard her provide the rollicking piano accompaniment for “The Ballad of Lefty and Crabbe” at the Living Room Theatre. She gave an amazing, nonstop, virtuosic performance. Bates is a humble person and loathe to tout her own accomplishments, but she’s a shining light in Kansas City’s arts community.
Village Presbyterian dedicated a new organ this year, and it’s a tremendous addition to Kansas City’s many fine organs. For the past eight years, Elisa Bickers, principal organist for Village, helped guide the Prairie Village church in replacing its damaged organ. In August, she gave a dedicatory recital and a thorough demonstration of what the $2 million Richards, Fowkes & Co. instrument can do. The packed church was beaming with pride over its new organ and its organist, who, we all hope, will give many more organ recitals in the future.
An unexpected delight this year was “Hansel and Gretel,” presented in October by the opera department of the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Conservatory of Music and Dance. Fenlon Lamb, the director of the opera department, proved that necessity is the mother of invention. Facing budget constraints, Lamb and her design team hit on the brilliant idea of creating sets and costumes from paper. The result was like something out of a 19th century book of fairy tales. Pure magic.
Kansas City has always had a reputation as a music-loving city, and that reputation continues to grow. In November, the Kansas City Ballet brought its sparkling production of “The Nutcracker” to Washington, D.C., at the request of the Kennedy Center. Washington music critics loved it and, according to Carney, there’s a strong chance they’ll be asked back.
As the year comes to a close, I am grateful for all of our talented, passionate and generous musicians and music lovers. If it weren’t for music, Kansas City would be a far less desirable place to live. May our city never take for granted the immense musical treasures we have in our midst.
You can reach Patrick Neas at email@example.com and follow his Facebook page, KC Arts Beat, at www.facebook.com/kcartsbeat.