Folks who seldom get together did just that when Kansas City Symphony musicians gave a free concert on the city’s east side Oct. 3.
The event, one of a series of free fall outdoor concerts launched in response to COVID-19 social distancing guidelines, took place in the parking lot of Community Builders of Kansas City, 4001 Blue Parkway.
“We had roughly 300 folks attend,” said Emmet Pierson Jr., president and CEO of Community Builders, a nonprofit developer that focuses on the urban core east of Troost. “It was a tremendously diverse crowd in terms of race and generations.”
In addition to neighborhood residents, the concert attendees included officials from some of Kansas City’s leading real estate, construction and architecture firms. “It was a who’s who of movers and shakers,” Pierson said. “Would these folks be in a parking lot in urban Kansas City if it weren’t for such a monumental event?”
Also attending that night was U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver. “That you have decided to hold free events to make your art as accessible to the community as possible — at this time, especially — is a breathtaking act of selflessness,” Cleaver said in a thank-you letter to symphony musicians.
Kansas City Symphony Executive Director Daniel Beckley said that even before the pandemic hit, the symphony realized that many Kansas Citians perceived a barrier between themselves and the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, the symphony’s performance home.
“The general public is not very familiar with what we do,” Beckley said. “But we are Kansas City’s orchestra. We don’t belong to just a certain segment of the population. We don’t just belong to the donor community. We belong to everybody. By going out into the neighborhoods, with a goal of trying to reach every ZIP code in the Kansas City metro this season, we think we’re going to make new relationships.”
The free fall concerts began in September and continued through mid-November, and attendance exceeded expectations. Symphony officials thought each concert would draw a couple dozen people, Beckley said. But by mid-October the program was drawing an average attendance of more than 100 per concert.
“It’s leading me to believe that perhaps the audience for classical music is quite a lot larger than we thought it was,” Beckley said. “We now think there are a lot more people out there in our community who want to consume what we’re doing, if only we can create a way to welcome them to it.”
Beckley said the idea for the free concerts grew out of contract negotiations with the symphony’s musicians, and the musicians have taken the lead in creating the programs for the concerts.
“It’s particularly important that it be led by the musicians,” he said. “We’re talking about chamber ensembles, small groups of musicians. They’re so in tune with their instruments and instrument families. They know what the possibilities are, and the passion they have about particular pieces of music drives them to put together super-compelling programs. They’re programming in a way that’s accessible and easy to listen to.”
The concerts were given by 64 musicians who performed in 16 different groups, said Associate Principal Flutist Shannon Finney.
“My group is trying to do a little bit of everything,” said Finney, who is part of a woodwind quintet. “We have some pops and some jazz and some classical and some kid stuff. Other groups are playing more straight-up classical music.”
The free venues lent themselves to a more relaxed atmosphere. Finney said attendees had included a woman dressed in a unicorn onesie. “We loved it. I pointed her out and we all cheered for her.”
Beckley said the symphony had reached out to officials such as civic leaders, church leaders and City Council members to get a sense of where the concerts would be welcomed.
“We don’t want to show up and say, ‘Here we are.’ We really like communities to invite us. It became evident that there were some obvious partnerships we could employ with the park systems, YMCAs and other entities. Based on the responses we got, we started filling up our calendar.”
Finney said it was crucial that the venue area include neighborhoods east of Troost, the long-standing dividing line between Kansas City’s white and African American communities.
“I made the request, after consulting with my group, that we be assigned locations east of Troost,” she said. “I have an interest in bringing music there.”
After Finney’s group performed at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch of the Kansas City Public Library, located at 30th and Prospect, a woman from the audience thanked her “for the wonderful music and for bringing the same enthusiasm to my hood that you do to Johnson County.”
Many of the concerts were performed out of a “mobile music box,” a brightly wrapped trailer that the symphony purchased. It serves as a safe traveling stage for small groups of musicians performing during a pandemic.
“We talked to a custom trailer manufacturer about our vision for this thing, and it turned out they had something that would very easily meet our needs,” Beckley said.
Some of the concerts made use of stages or gazebos located in parks, Finney said.
The cost to the symphony of giving the free concerts is “pretty minimal,” Beckley said. “We’ve already made the commitment to our musicians that we’re going to pay their salaries. Depending on the size of the event we may have to hire a sound engineer, and we may have some costs associated with permitting. We have a truck that we rent. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s not a very expensive proposition for us.”
Looking ahead, Beckley wants the free concerts to continue beyond the pandemic.
“Broadening the audience for our art is an existential issue for us,” he said. “We can’t just continue to do what we’ve been doing and expect our audience to grow. Our mission is to serve Kansas City with great symphonic music. Our business is to build an audience for our art form. This is creating new relationships and opening the door.”
The Kansas City Symphony intends to offer more free outdoor Mobile Music Box concerts this spring. Many of the winter concerts will be streamed online and the symphony recently announced it would resume in-person concerts at the Kauffman Center in a very limited way in January. For more information, www.kcsymphony.org.