Building a Better World with the Kansas City Symphony

A conductor on a podium raises his arms and stands on tiptoe while conducting an orchestra on stage.

The Kansas City Symphony, conducted by music director Michael Stern, in one of the many exciting moments of the evening.
Photo Credit: Eric Williams

Garnering multiple standing ovations, the Kansas City Symphony opened their season with verve and solidarity of spirit. With ten new members, including concertmaster Jun Iwasaki, the group continues to evolve in this latest chapter, striving always for artistic excellence. 

Music director Michael Stern reflected on our “globally connected and imperfect world” in his welcoming remarks from the stage of Helzberg Hall. Traditionally, the orchestra begins the concerts of the opening weekend with the National Anthem. Stern described an anthem as “reflecting in music the best of us” and this year, in deference to global events, they preceded “The Star-Spangled Banner” with “God Save the Queen” and “State Anthem of Ukraine,” honoring the death of Queen Elizabeth II and the struggles and sacrifice of the Ukrainian people in their pursuit of democracy. 

Music director Michael Stern leads the orchestra and audience in singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Photo Credit: Eric Williams

The program itself was a similar mix of somber and jubilant, hardworking and ecstatic. 

Composer James Lee III was in attendance, sharing beforehand some of the significant influences and references found in his work, “Amer’ican.” It opened the program, a reflection on the label “american” and its changed context, looking more at what the word meant prior to its association with any immigrants of European descent. 

Applause from the ensemble and audience for composer James Lee III, after The Kansas City Symphony performance of “Amer’ican.”
Photo Credit: Eric Williams

In this piece, he responds to Antonin Dvorak’s statement that to discover “American” music would be to study and celebrate Native American and African American music. 

Lee makes great use of the flutes and percussion, crafting melodies with bends and flickers, alluding to the native musics that preceded the arrival of Europeans. The work also pays homage to African American music by quoting spirituals.  

And while these gentler sections were presented beautifully, it was the wilder sections that left the lasting impression, at times harsh, at times invigorating, with a galloping, crashing end that left us breathless. Though it premiered in 2021, the work certainly has the markings for an addition to the new canon of orchestral music. 

Here’s a coincidence: all three of the works were written during the composers’ mid-forties. It would be interesting if programs presented pictures reflecting a person’s time of life, instead of their staid elder portrait. (Lee, of course, is just a few years beyond when he wrote this work.)

Violinist Gil Shaham brought his megawatt energy to the stage for Camille Saint-Saëns’ Concerto no. 3 in B minor for Violin and Orchestra, op. 61. A phenomenal performer, he made the virtuosic work seem infinitely enjoyable. While other violinists may have scowled after a hefty run, Shaham seemed eager and gleeful. 

Soloist Gil Shaham performs Camille Saint-Saëns’ Concerto no. 3 in B minor for Violin and Orchestra, op. 61, with The Kansas City Symphony.
Photo Credit: Eric Williams

The concerto is a delightful conversation between soloist and orchestra, Saint-Saëns sharing the melodic pieces between the voices. We had some lovely playing from the winds, especially oboist Alison Chung. Violin and clarinet moved seamlessly in the delicate end to the second movement, slightly marred by the ensemble’s imprecise final chord. The final movement, with its hymn-like strings and brass chorale, was triumphant, joyous and furiously exciting. 

After a few curtain calls, Shaham encored on a favorite: J.S. Bach’s Gavotte en Rondeau from Violin Partita no. 3 in E major. 

Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony, with its declamatory final movement, is a watchword of Americana, paraded as an ideal of Americanism with nearly eight decades of performances reinforcing that image. Lee’s piece is an insightful contrast to this beloved work.

The hope and strength inherent in the piece was sustained throughout, the orchestra in full force. While the start to the first movement was somewhat forward, there was still room for growth. Whether flowing or crystalline, breathlike or clamorous, the performances were captivating. 

The brass, of course, leaned into their role as harbingers of hope. The piccolo sounded divine and incisive. While the percussionists were reveling in a field day of intensity, principal percussionist Josh Jones, particularly, showed command and dramatic flair. 

The exuberance and energy of the performance–or perhaps the months-long absence of symphonic music–caused an existential moment. It’s jaw-droppingly amazing that a symphony orchestra exists–that so many people, for so many years, for so many hours a day, have worked toward that goal of creating a mass emotional moment with a thousand or so near strangers–or that this embodiment of the composer’s imagination should create such a visceral reaction of force. With all this consideration of an American ideal, it was not difficult to draw the parallel of the orchestra to a system of democracy, that engaged participation, hard work, and shared beliefs can inspire this coming together to create–ever so briefly–a better world.

Reviewed Saturday, September 17. For more information visit kcsymphony.org

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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