Lee's Summit Journal

LS Orchestra musicians say practicing for concerts like spring show a labor of love

Lee’s Summit resident Sharry Willoughby plays the cello during a rehearsal of the Lee’s Summit Symphony.
Lee’s Summit resident Sharry Willoughby plays the cello during a rehearsal of the Lee’s Summit Symphony. Special to the Journal

It’s been 16 years since the Lee’s Summit Symphony played its first performance at Longview Show Horse Arena, now Longview Farm Elementary School. The group has enjoyed many years of sometimes sold-out performances, and now they’re tuning up for their spring show at John Knox Village Pavilion March 23.

Conductor Russ Berlin started the group in 2003 with the late Phyllis Hamilton and 90 musicians. The symphony is about the same size today and counts among its number at least 20 music teachers, as well as some of Berlin’s students from his three decades teaching in Lee’s Summit.

Violinist and executive board member Kyla Stoltz was one those former students who saw an ad in the newspaper about the first auditions.

“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh. I don’t know if I can play up to that level.’ I had a 1-year-old, (and) as I was practicing, she was crying, and the dog was howling, but I was able to brush up on things and got myself back to where I needed to be,” she said.

Although the conductor is the same, Stoltz said it’s very different to play in the orchestra as an adult than when Berlin was her teacher in high school.

“It’s a different dynamic when you’re in high school and you’re a teenager. Everything is always a chore; it’s something you have to do,” she said. “As an adult, this is something I have chosen to do. His approach with all of us is one of a fellow musician, a fellow colleague, and we’re all gathered to make great music.”

Although there aren’t many openings, the group does hold auditions each year in August for new members.

Their last concert in December drew a crowd of 1,400 people. The symphony has performed all over town, from all three Lee’s Summit high schools to the Kauffman Center.

“We still have quite a few of the original people, but we’ve added a lot of others,” Berlin said.

Because the orchestra is all volunteers, not everyone is a professional musician, although Berlin calls them all advanced in terms of skill level. Principal players do receive a small amount of money for each performance.

Although the symphony does play quite a lot of traditional pieces, from Beethoven to Bach, Berlin and associate conductor Kirt Mosier also shake things up with everything from Leonard Bernstein to the Harry Potter scores, as well as new compositions from local musicians.

The spring concert will showcase “Russian Easter Festival Overture” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, “Simple Gifts” from Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” and selections from “The Greatest Showman,” among other pieces.

This year, Berlin and Mosier have split the work and each taken charge of selecting the music for a couple of the group’s concerts.

“That’s a first, (and it) worked out really well,” Berlin said. “We are good friends, but we don’t always do things the same way, and I think it’s helped keep our interest up.”

Stoltz said that having Mosier join the symphony as a conductor and music director has helped energize the group.

“He brings a completely different style of conducting. I think the entire symphony is having fun looking at where he’s going with his vision of our symphony,” she said.

When it comes to the symphony’s popularity, Berlin thinks being local makes a difference.

“I think there are a lot of (audience members) that appreciate having a place in Lee’s Summit instead of having to go somewhere. They have an ownership of it. … Word of mouth is probably one of the most important tools we have,” Berlin said.

Stoltz agreed with Berlin.

“We want people in Lee’s Summit to know that we’re there. I think the word has gotten out much better,” she said.

“I want to be able to never hear, ‘I didn’t know Lee’s Summit has a symphony,’ again.”