Fun, Free, Eclectic, Experimental

KC Symphony scores a hit with free chamber music concerts.

[block pos=”right”]The chamber music concerts draw a different and more diverse crowd than typically attends the symphony: families with school-aged kids in party dresses and clip-on ties, folks in ball caps and tie-dyed T-shirts, couples on dates, groups in business casual and gaggles of friends.[/block]

It was 6 p.m. on a work-a-day Wednesday last June and over a thousand eager people filled the blue-hued seats of the Kauffman Center’s Helzberg Hall. Amazed, Frank Byrne, executive director of the Kansas City Symphony, stood on stage and took a 180-degree cell phone video of the exuberant crowd—lining the mezzanine, packing the parterre, waving from the grand tier—as they waited for the Kansas City Symphony’s Happy Hour Series chamber music concert to begin.

A thousand people attending a mid-week chamber music concert?

Byrne—and the musicians—are thrilled.

“It’s really overwhelming how many people come,” said principal flutist Michael Gordon. “We couldn’t be happier with the success of it and it’s an awesome opportunity for us to have fun.”

“Helzberg Hall is a chamber music hall,” he added, citing the acoustics’ crystal-clear definition and a design that brings the audience into close proximity with the musicians on stage. “You’re never on stage looking out into a void and just assuming there are people out there; there’s a real connection.”

Chamber music is by nature a more intimate art form than a full symphony, and these concerts give newcomers and regular attendees alike the chance to hear the musicians in a more personal way. Not only are the musicians more individualized in these smaller groups, but they also speak about each piece from the stage and mingle with the audience afterwards in Brandmeyer Hall.

“It’s a good way for them to get to know you, not just as a musician on stage,” said associate principal cellist Susie Yang.

Yet another enticing aspect of the series is that the concerts are free. Tickets are required, though (see box at right), and from the start the seats have filled weeks in advance. They are also more casual and usually only run about one hour. This draws a different and more diverse crowd than typically attends the symphony. For many it’s their first classical music experience and their first time in Helzberg Hall. Byrne always asks for a show of hands for first-time visitors and estimated that every concert welcomes a good 30% new audience members.

For last October’s “Brasstacular,” the audience included families with school-aged kids in party dresses and clip-on ties, folks in ball caps and tie-dyed T-shirts, couples on dates, groups in business casual and gaggles of friends. (And, as this concert coincided with a Royals’ playoff game, there was a plethora of Royals gear in evidence, on stage and off.)

The chamber series, billed as “Free Happy Hour Concerts,” launched in 2012 as part of the organization’s long-term strategy to create different entry points for the community to connect with the symphony. The first season they matched repertoire with the Classical Series, but since then the works have become more eclectic.  They’ve presented Brahms, Crumb, Stravinsky, Britten, Mendelssohn and Saariaho. They’ve paired Ligeti with Zappa, Bach’s Goldberg Variations with fiddling tunes by Mark O’Conner.

Once a month, from January to June, this season’s concerts range from solo organ recital to tango, American classics to avant-garde masterworks.

“We’re not dumbing anything down,” said principal percussionist Christopher McLaurin. “You have this brand new audience coming in that, in many cases, has never been to a classical concert before and so this is a great opportunity for us to give them the good stuff, really exciting and interesting repertoire.”
Symphony players choose the music and the personnel, submitting works to a committee of administrators and musicians who then select the programs for the series. This musician-driven concept puts the creative control with the players. “It’s really an opportunity for us to stretch beyond the barriers of the orchestral music we play … we can be much more experimental,” said Gordon.

They’ll end this season with a program created by McLaurin and inspired by two pivotal 20th-century composers: Pierre Boulez and John Cage.

“The whole genesis of (this program) was sort of inspired by the Kauffman Center, because it’s such a relatable, yet modernist piece of architecture,” McLaurin said. “The space, to me, demanded Boulez at some point…music that is structured in such an architectural way, in such an amazing architectural space.”

The series, which began during the Kansas City Symphony’s second year in Helzberg Hall, is now in its fourth season.  “We had no idea when we started this – would people come to a mid-week concert at 6 p.m.?”  said Byrne. “It’s proven to be wildly successful.  I would think that in many ways our series would be the envy of many orchestras in the nation.

KC Symphony Happy Hour Concerts

“Jan Kraybill’s Organ Extravaganza,” Jan. 19. Advance ticket reservations started Nov. 1, 2015

“Appalachian Spring,” February 10. Advance ticket reservations started Dec. 1, 2015.

“ Songs and Dances,” March 2. Reserve tickets in advance starting Jan. 1. “Gypsies, Tangos and Lullabies,” April 19. Reserve tickets in advance starting Feb. 1.

“Modern Romance,“ May 11. Reserve tickets in advance starting March 1.

“The Boulez/Cage Correspondence,” June 7. Reserve tickets in advance starting April 1.

All concerts are performed in Helzberg Hall. Lobby bars open at 5 p.m; the one-hour performances start at 6 p.m. www.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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