The Kansas City Symphony’s 2017/18 Season Honors a Giant of American Music

“A Century of Bernstein” celebration caps an ambitious season of international stars, soloists, guest conductors and popular favorites.

Orchestras and organizations across the nation are honoring an important milestone during the 2017/2018 season. From Aug. 25, 2017 to Aug. 25, 2018, they are celebrating the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein, born in 1918, and recognizing his influence on American music as conductor, composer, educator and advocate.

The Kansas City Symphony has planned an extensive celebration, with “A Century of Bernstein” in the latter half of the season. They have programmed works by Bernstein into nearly every spring concert of the Classical Series, as well as ancillary events beyond the performances in Helzberg Hall.

Music director Michael Stern explained, “Everybody who came after him somehow benefited from what he left behind, not only in terms of the art form, but for American music.” As well as being a gifted conductor and acclaimed composer, Bernstein was a thinker, a teacher and a writer, whose work, said Stern, stands up to reexamination. “I think that is worthy of celebration.”

“We have all sorts of different people bringing their perspective on repertoire that they have known for a long time,” Stern added. “That’s really great. We’ll show the liturgical side of him, the theatrical side, the serious side of him and the humorous side of him as a composer.”

“He changed the idea of what music could be in this country, because he broke down all the barriers about what appropriate concert music should be: He didn’t care. He just had music flowing out of him in a way which made the kind of ease with any vernacular really impressive.”

Bernstein’s legacy is not wholly contained in his compositions, recordings and essays, but in his passion, his advocacy for social change, for hope and for music as a catalyst to a better society. Stern said, “I hope to make the case that we need people (like Bernstein) to stand up and fight for music in this country, and to fight for the arts and to fight for education.”

And the Bernstein centenary is just a portion of the season. This year, the Kansas City Symphony welcomes some of our favorite international stars, soloists and guest conductors from all over the world returning or making their KCS debuts, and features popular favorites from the repertoire alongside pieces never before played by the Symphony.

An Ambitious Season

“The goal is to celebrate the great canon of the repertoire,” said Frank Byrne, executive director of the Kansas City Symphony, which will fulfill that aim with performances of Ottorino Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” and Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique,” along with newer works by living composers, including a world premiere.

The season’s opening concert in Helzberg Hall includes Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 3 with soloist Natasha Paremski, Christopher Rouse’s “Odna Zhizn” and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Capriccio espagnol,” led by Stern. The fall months include performances of Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony no. 8 and Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 6, with a performance of Dimitri Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto no. 1 with Mayu Kishima, winner of the inaugural Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition.

Additionally, the ensemble will perform Johannes Brahms’ “A German Requiem,” led by guest conductor Robert Spano with soloists Jessica Rivera (soprano) and Nmon Ford (baritone) and the Kansas City Symphony Chorus.

There are two intriguing performances in January, prior to the launch of the Bernstein festival.

Stern leads the orchestra in Esa-Pekka Salonen’s “LA Variations” (Salonen is one of this century’s great conductor/composers) and the Kansas City Symphony’s first performance of Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5. The concert includes concertmaster Noah Geller and principal violist Christine Grossman as soloists in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra.

Stern also conducts the orchestra’s first performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony no. 7, as they progress through the Mahler canon. For a long time, Mahler’s large-scale works were an iffy proposition for the ensemble, but now, Stern said, “the orchestra really gets into it and plays it so well that it’s possible to take on works like that. It’s one of Mahler’s more complicated — intellectually, philosophically and musically, certainly — but it’s genius.”

Mahler, of course, was a famous composer/conductor and principal conductor for the New York Philharmonic in 1910. A generation later, in 1943, Bernstein debuted with the New York Philharmonic, eventually becoming music director in 1957, in a relationship that would last off and on for the rest of his life.

NYPhil is hosting its own commemoration of Bernstein’s legacy, naturally, but the Kansas City Symphony’s festival, part of its Classical Series, is arguably more extensive, covering more concerts, more rep and bringing more artists into the performances. (See sidebar.)

Something For Everyone

Of course, the Classical Series is only a fraction of the orchestra’s performances throughout the year. The season includes youth, family and educational performances, numerous holiday-themed performances in December, and the Classics Uncorked series, conducted by associate conductor Jason Seber, now in his second season. Screenland at the Symphony hosts “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Star Trek: Into Darkness” and “Back to the Future in Concert,” along with the second installment of the Harry Potter movie series. The Pops Series includes Melissa Ethridge, Audra McDonald, and tributes to Rodgers & Hammerstein, Queen and Prince. Additionally, some Happy Hours concerts will include a Bernstein component.

There’s also a special presentation featuring Kansas City’s own Bobby Watson on alto saxophone in a tribute to Kansas City jazz, featuring trumpeter Herman Mehari and historian and radio show host Chuck Haddix.

“With such a wide range of artists, the intent is to be true to what and who we are,” said Byrne. “At the same time, we want to connect many different people with the beauty and virtuosity that a professional symphony can provide . . . [by] delighting them and making them feel that there is a place for them at the symphony.”

Like Bernstein himself, the Kansas City Symphony’s season is eclectic, virtuosic and wide-ranging, featuring local talent with an international scope. “His legacy, his shadow, is huge for music in this country. Even people who write music in a completely different way would argue that point. There was something so almost revolutionary, that, as an American, he could do,” said Stern.

“We are as American a city as anywhere, smack dab in the middle of the country. We should stand up and say, this is what we believe in and this is the kind of community and culture we are trying to forge together.”

“He didn’t have primary students … but he would say he was teaching all the time. He was teaching during rehearsal, he was teaching when you had a conversation, when you had dinner with him, at any moment there could be a lecture on any number of things, musical or non-musical. He was an incredibly well-read and erudite guy, with very strong opinions, often funny, sometimes a little self-referential,” remembered Stern. Bernstein even helped Stern when he was writing his honors thesis at Harvard.

Of course, an entire generation of children recognize Bernstein as a teacher from his televised “Young People’s Concerts,” which Stern often attended in person at Lincoln Center.

Another set of people recognize Bernstein from his work on Broadway musicals and film, represented during the festival by the Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story” and the Symphony Suite from “On the Waterfront.”

March performances also celebrate Bernstein’s more intimate work. “He goes from this enormous canvas of these huge pieces and theatrical undertakings and he’s got just these lovely . . . little songs that Joyce (DiDonato) is going to sing,” Stern said.

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma returns and performs “Three Meditations” from Bernstein’s large scale “Mass.” That concert includes a world premiere work from Chris Rogerson, whose “A Single Candle” was premiered by the orchestra in 2014. The organization frequently commissions works by American composers, an important and necessary role for a leading American arts organization.

“I do feel like there is a special responsibility (as musicians and artists working in America) that we have towards American composers, young American talent, American music,” said Stern. This mission, too, follows the legacy of Bernstein. “The idea of representing America as an American, Lenny wrote the book on that,” said Stern.

The Kansas City Symphony Chorus returns for Bernstein’s sublime “Chichester Psalms” and Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy.”

Two other concerts are mixed in with the festival. Guest conductor Johannes Debus makes his Kansas City Symphony debut on selections from Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Violinist Augustin Hadelich, in a return engagement, pairs pieces by Franz Josef Haydn and Thomas Adès in a concert that includes Einojuhani Rautavarra’s exquisite “Canticus arcticus.”

The finale concert includes Bernstein’s second symphony, “The Age of Anxiety,” performed with pianist Ran Dank. Based on the 1947 poem by W. H. Auden, Bernstein’s work is “full of jazz,” Stern said. “Not ersatz jazz, not manipulation, but real. Lenny understood, he didn’t pretend to understand, he just knew it. He wasn’t writing a photocopy of a Broadway musical or jazz, it was the real deal.”

About The Author: Libby Hanssen

Libby Hanssen

Libby Hanssen lives over the state line with her jazz musician husband, Ivesian little boy and star-bright baby girl. As a writer and poet, she is consistently impressed and inspired by Kansas City’s artistic community.

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