Notes from the Past—For the Future

Commemorating WWI through music, an interview with Michael Stern

Next year marks the centennial of the U.S.’s entrance into World War I. While many artistic institutions around the city held special events last year in honor of the start of WWI, the Kansas City Symphony chose to continue the commemoration into 2016 with a specially commissioned symphony. Created by American composer Jonathan Leshnoff, the symphony draws inspiration from the text of letters found in the national WWI Museum’s archives, including a letter from a lifelong Kansas City resident writing to his mother.

The last movement of the symphony will feature excerpts from the letter, sung by baritone Stephen Powell. Spaces sat down with Michael Stern, music director for the Kansas City Symphony, to discuss the joys of new commissions and musical moments relating to the war.

Kansas City Spaces: Is it common for the symphony to commission new works?

MIchael Stern: I think it is incumbent upon all of us who are trying to add to the fabric of music in the country to nurture and support and promote new work, especially the work of interesting American composers. It refines and deepens our musical culture, and it makes you view our contemporary society differently when you look through the prism of work being created now. It also makes you look at old art differently, whether it’s classical art or visual art or performing art and certainly music. Having a new approach will deepen your appreciation of old works that you’ve heard many times. It’s a win-win-win.

A lot of orchestras commission original pieces, and I think a lot of the bigger orchestras and bigger budgets have more possibilities to do more commissioning—but we’ve had good luck, and in the past we’ve commissioned up to three new pieces in a year. In fact, the Leshnoff composition is not the only new work that we are premiering this year. In April we gave the first Kansas City performance and the second performance ever of a violin concerto by David Ludwig, a contemporary American composer.

KCS: How did you settle on Jonathan Leshnoff—and the theme of WWI—for this commission?

MS: Jonathan and I are very close. I met him about 12 years ago when I was conducting the Baltimore Symphony. He was already living in the Baltimore area and teaching at Towson University. His work impressed me right away, but over the years our relationship has deepened. I have recorded and commissioned and performed his music for the last 12 years.

Last year I wanted to highlight the period before the war during our season. I thought it was more interesting to focus on the change that led up to the outbreak of the war and the artistic reflection during that time. Of course we are very proud in Kansas City to have the only national WWI museum, so it was a natural theme to consider for a commission, especially as we look forward to 2017-2018, the centennial of the U.S.’s entrance into the war. I approached Jonathan, and he loved the idea. He did a lot of research at the archives of the museum and found these texts, which serve as the basis of the last movement of his third symphony.

It’s funny how when you give a focus to the general outlook, lots of interesting connections start to happen. For example, at the opening of this program we’re doing a rather little-known work by a French composer named Magnard. It’s this incredibly beautiful piece, a hymn—which is all the more touching because he was killed defending his farm against the Germans at the very outbreak of WWI. So here is this guy—this established composer, venerated in France—trying to stand guard against the German invasion, and they shot him on his own property. When you consider that moment in history, that figure and this piece that sounds like high Romanticism, it’s really moving. And then immediately you go into Jonathan’s beautiful piece, which includes these words written by soldiers in Kansas City who were over in Europe fighting the Germans. It gives you perspective on both of these musical moments.

KCS: Will Jonathan be attending the debut of his third symphony?

MS: Yes! He will be doing some outreach, and I think he will be doing the pre-concert talks with me. I like that. Sometimes composers choose not to be there at the debut of their piece because they’ve been so close to it for so long. But Jonathan and I have this shorthand, and I think he trusts me with his music and trusts the symphony. I find it incredibly helpful to have the composer in town. One, he can answer questions. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if you had a question about a Beethoven or a Mozart piece to have them around to answer it? And the other thing is, you never know exactly what the composer wanted when he created the piece, but if he is there, he can tell you that. You can merge your visions with a stronger performance for having the good feedback.

KCS: Is there anything coming up in future seasons to look forward to?

MS: I’m looking forward to the 2017-2018 season. It could be one of the most exciting seasons of the Kansas City Symphony yet. Since I’ve gotten to Kansas City, we’ve built every year not only on our success, but also on our ability to have real contact and communion with the audience and the community in a way that has made other places take notice. Clearly we’re doing something right. It’s really gratifying to know that you can make art and have it mean what it does. There are a lot of other places around the country where that’s not the case. We have a wonderful team, everybody from the board and the administrative staff to the musicians, and we want to make something exceptional happen.

KCS: That’s a theme we hear often—that Kansas City is making the rest of the country take notice!

MS: I am long, long, long past the point of apologizing that we’re just in the Midwest or that we’re not as big as other places. Well you know what, we do it well and we do it at a very high level and we don’t apologize for that. And I think a lot of other places wish they could sell tickets the way we do or commission new music the way we do. Which is not to say we’re the only ones—but I think we are very lucky. But we work hard for it, too.