Arts News: Determined to Make a Difference

After a successful exploratory year, the Opus 76 quartet soars into its sophomore season with a well-defined repertoire, growing audience and a community-focused outlook.

London-born violinist Keith Stanfield landed in Kansas City a little over six years ago, putting down roots with his wife, Kansas native violist Ashley Stanfield, and starting their family. Stanfield quickly became an in-demand orchestral player and soloist. But as he became familiar with the Kansas City-area classical music scene, he discovered that the composers he cherished the most didn’t get as much play as he assumed.

“The reason I decided to start playing the violin was Mozart and Beethoven,” said Stanfield, “but having lived here a little bit I came to the realization that . . . these composers only made up about 5 percent of what these five or six orchestras were playing a year.”

The ensemble — with Keith and Zsolt Eder on violin, Ashley on viola and Sascha Groschang on cello — takes its name from Franz Joseph Haydn’s popular set of six string quartets, composed between 1797 and 1799. The musicians devote their energies to sharing traditional European masterworks from the 18th and 19th centuries with local audiences.

“Everybody had this sentiment that everybody had already heard these pieces before, or they get to hear them regularly, but it’s simply not true,” Stanfield said. At first, he was outraged. “Now I see it as an opportunity to make a difference.”

That difference is a series of community-focused concerts designed to present the best of the repertoire in as comfortable an environment as possible. To this end, Stanfield focused his business acumen on developing a strategic marketing plan to grow the Opus 76 audience both in-person and online. With more than 5,000 followers on Facebook, the ensemble’s online presence is on a par with many of the leading international touring quartets.

Their focus is Kansas City, though.

This season, they expanded the free Classical Series to nine concerts, each following the same format: about an hour long, always at 7 p.m., featuring two pieces. There’s no intermission, but they break up the pieces with some remarks. Families are welcome (all the members have children, too), and there are snacks afterwards. Folks are welcome to photograph or film (as long as you don’t disturb anyone else), kids can wiggle without worrying anyone, and all while enjoying exemplary chamber music.

“You don’t have to worry about disturbing us,” he laughed. “When we’re on stage, nothing can shake us, we are doing our job.”

The free series makes up about 25 percent of the quartet’s full season. For each free concert, they present the program at a point of service in the community, such as a foster home or soup kitchen. They also have a series for the residents at Bishop Spencer Place and two religious music series, performing a special arrangement of Max Bruch’s Kol Nidre for Jewish congregations and Haydn’s “The Seven Last Words of Christ” at area churches during Lent. They played the inaugural “Chamber in the Chamber” show at Prairie Village City Hall and will return to that series Nov. 20.

Three times a year they pull out all the stops for their Champagne Series: black tie, catered, candlelit, full-length concerts that serve as a fundraisers for the free concerts. And it’s all with the aim of bringing these genre-defining pieces to the entire community, rich and poor, young and old, expert and novice. “Our quartet hopes to bash through some of those stereotypes with concerts for the whole family,” cellist Groschang wrote in an email.

They want to create opportunities that not only bring people to the genre, but also become part of their tradition. Each Halloween, they plan to do a spooky show and host a costume contest; each Christmas, some holiday favorites (this year, they will collaborate with gospel singer Isaac Cates and will also perform Danish String Quartet’s wondrous “Wood Works”). Looking toward 2020, they’ll perform the entire Beethoven quartet cycle.

“We want to create an atmosphere of curiosity for people of all ages,” wrote Groschang.

When it’s the community you serve, said Stanfield, “you always have to think about who you are talking to and where they are and how you can best meet them.”

The Opus 76 quartet presents “Classical Series 3” at 7 p.m. Nov. 15 at Old Mission United Methodist Church, 5519 State Park Rd., Fairway. Admission is free. The Nov. 20 “Chamber in the Chamber” show will be held at 5:30 p.m. at City of Prairie Village, 7700 Mission Rd., and is ticketed. The Holiday Special will be held at 7 p.m. Dec. 8 at Old Mission United Methodist Church. Admission is free.

Above: The Opus 76 quartet, featuring musicians (left to right) Zsolt Eder, Sascha Groschang, Keith Stanfield and Ashley Stanfield, begins its second season in Kansas City. (Gary Rohman)

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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