Heightened Involvement with the Community, an Emphasis on Midwestern Composers and the Inclusion of Music from Underrepresented Populations are Among the Group’s Goals
— Sharra Wagner, vice president and artistic director, newEar
Kansas City’s professional new music ensemble celebrates its 25th season with a “Happy Birthday, newEar!” concert Dec. 2 at Central United Methodist Church. Over the past few years, newEar Contemporary Chamber Ensemble has undergone a period of transition and restructuring, preparing to grow into the sort of arts organization that will present another 25 years of new music to the region.
“There is no other group in Kansas City that I am aware of,” said vice president and artistic director Sharra Wagner, “which, for 25 years, has commissioned new works and performed new works by living composers.”
This year, they are making changes to expand the mission of newEar, with more outreach (they plan to take their March concert, an animal-themed “Opus Zoo,” to local schools and libraries), an expanded and busy board of directors and a wider purpose.
“We have this vision of not just being a music ensemble, but being an arts organization involved in the community,” said Wagner. To that end, the group is exploring unusual art spaces for concerts (having traditionally performed in churches and concert halls), connecting with Kansas City’s thriving community of artists. They also seek to build their audience, reaching “people who are open-minded to new experiences, who have a certain level of curiosity,” Wagner said.
The group started in 1993 as a collective of musicians, most of whom are still active in the Kansas City scene, presenting mid- to late-20th-century chamber music. Early concerts garnered praise: “To be washed in this welter of sounds was strangely thrilling. Big grins spread through the audience,” wrote Scott Cantrell, former classical music critic for “The Kansas City Star.”
Through the years, the group has premiered over 80 works, collaborated with dancers and artists, even traveled to China, all the while staying true to their mission of presenting modern music. But as newEar evolves, they prepare for the future of the ensemble and shed the norms of the 20th century, including a European-centric mindset, or even a bi-coastal mindset.
“We’ve made a focus to promote to the world that the middle of this country has a lot of amazing music happening, (and we are) seeking out Midwestern composers,” said Wagner. Though local composers have been involved since the beginning, from now on newEar intends to feature a local composer at every concert, and perform one of his or her works.
They also want to create a database for composers from the region. “When we’re seeking a piece, it is really just digging in the weeds,” said Wagner. Though the project is a multi-year process, “we’re staking our claim on the Midwest scene. It’s a place where a lot is happening.”
The December concert celebrates “the past, present and future of the organization,” said James Westbrook, who serves as secretary. The program features composers connected to newEar through the years, and primarily local composers including Ingrid Stölzel, whose “The Road Is All” will be performed. Most of the composers will attend, along with many of the group’s past members. The performance includes on-stage program notes between pieces, making for a rich experience.
The program includes a reprise of “Hint of Mischief,” written for the group by James Mobberley, professor emeritus at UMKC’s Conservatory of Music and Dance. Mobberley, featured during the ensemble’s first season, served as composer-in-residence from 1998 to 2001.
Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon is the current Barr Laureate at the Conservatory. Her “Zaka” is an intense, pulse-racing work, commissioned by the new music ensemble Eighth Blackbird.
Tonia Ko’s “Hush” for cello and percussion uses spoken word (with text taken from Virginia Woolf’s short story “The String Quartet”), extended techniques and, according to the composer’s notes, demonstrates the “worth in silences.” Ko, who was born in Hong Kong, raised in Honolulu, and earned degrees from Eastman School of Music, Indiana University and Cornell University, currently lives in Lawrence, Kansas.
NewEar honors Pauline Oliveros, who passed away in 2016. She was loved and respected worldwide, with her Deep Listening philosophy, and was a favorite of the ensemble, expanding awareness in Kansas City as a guest artist in 1997. For the aleatoric “Meditations on the Points of the Compass,” the group will blur the space and expectations between audience and performers with Oliveros’ explorations of sound and consciousness.
The styles of these pieces vary wildly, from fun to gritty, forceful to contemplative, and it is variety with intent. “When I became artistic director, I wanted something for everybody,” said Wagner.
But something for everybody means more than just meeting different aesthetic ideals. “We are programming music that is really good, but we are intentionally seeking out underrepresented populations,” said Wagner. “That’s an important personal thing for me and I think we’re making a lot of progress in that area.”
“One of the great things about being in this organization is feeling like people have a voice and seeing the group you identify with being represented,” added Westbrook.
A diverse set of pieces, coming from a diverse set of composers, performed by a diverse group of musicians, reflects the future newEar intends to create as they transition from a music ensemble to an arts organization operating within a thriving arts community, looking to the next quarter century and beyond.
NewEar Contemporary Chamber Ensemble presents “Happy Birthday, newEar!” at 8 p.m. Dec. 2 at Central United Methodist Church, 5144 Oak St. A reception follows the concert. For more information on venue and tickets, visit newear.org.
Above: NewEar members (front, left to right) J.J. Pearse, Scott Steele, Anthony LaBat, Leah Sproul Pulatie and (back, left to right) James Westbrook, Ted King-Smith, Bradford Athey and Sharra Wagner gathered for a 25th anniversary portrait outside the Bloch Building at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. (photo by Nathan Lang)