Kansas City Symphony Jubilantly Welcomes Audience Back to Helzberg Hall

Kansas City Symphony, conducted by Michael Stern. Credit: Eric Williams

Have you ever been in love? Have you ever been separated from that love and then, once reunited, felt the rush of oxytocin and serotonin?

That was kind of what it was like to be in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts Wednesday evening, listening to the Kansas City Symphony perform for an in-person audience for the first time in 63 weeks.

Though the audience capacity was limited, to allow for distancing, the energy was jubilant. As we emerged at the top of the stairs into Brandmeyer Hall, the woman in front of me turned to her companion and chuckled, “Well, here we are!”

All through the hall, Kauffman Center volunteers were greeting symphony regulars. I overheard multiple people say, “I’m just happy to be here.” The usher who showed me to my seat exclaimed, “It’s good to be back, isn’t it?”

It was.

The concert was a glad tiding, a note of hope as we begin to recover from a desolate year.

That’s not to say the orchestra has been inactive, however. Operating at multiple levels, they have been busy, with virtual concerts since January for subscribers on the MySymphonySeat platform, a wealth of Mobile Music Box chamber music concerts in neighborhoods across the metro, a radio show, and various digital offerings, such as podcasts.

There have been internal movement as well, evaluating their repertoire to perform a more equitably representative array of composers. One of the small silver linings of these times, said music director Michael Stern, was the ability to dig into the smaller, more intimate repertoire. “We have all learned something, together,” he said, referencing music, but also, our world.

After waiting so long, the concert began at 7:30 on the dot, the members of the brass section walking on stage en masse to perform Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” an evergreen selection of rugged endurance, offering a perspective that is honorable, yet humble.

The musicians were generously spaced apart, and between each piece they reset for an entirely different ensemble, bringing a variety of styles to the concert.

They followed up with a version of Adolphus Hailstork’s “Fanfare on Amazing Grace,” for brass quintet, timpani, and organ. A wind band version of the work was performed by the United States Marine Band for the inauguration of President Biden. With organ (performed by Jan Kraybill) the work shook the rafters of the hall, with rising, rippling lines from the trumpets, a triumphant work.

Richard Strauss’ Serenade for Winds just seems like the sort of music that begs for an elaborate story set to it, but instead it’s simply delightful music. Performed with panache, Stern let the final chord linger a moment.

Composer Carlos Simon, recently named composer-in-residence for the Kennedy Center, was in attendance to introduce his piece, “Warmth From Other Suns.” The title comes from Isabel Wilkerson’s book on the Great Migration, when African Americans moved from the South to the North and Western part of the country seeking a better life.

The work was originally written as a 5-minute string quartet piece, commissioned by the Sphinx Organization. But the Kansas City Symphony reached out about arranging the work for string orchestra, and Simon expanded the work into a 13-minute multi-movement work for full string cohort. That version received its world premiere on Wednesday.

The work balances fragility and strength, with glints and glimmers in the violins followed with insistent rapid passages across the ensemble that descended, then seem to blossom, bringing to mind the statement: “they tried to bury us, but they didn’t know we were seeds.”

The three movement work had a mournful motif, rising and falling, woven throughout, like a weary traveler seeking security and rest. It’s a lovely, poetic work.

Again, Stern held onto the final note, securing the emotional impact of the moment.

The concert ended with the largest ensemble of the evening, and, I think, the first time strings, winds and brass had shared a stage together in many months. They came together for Igor Stravinsky’s “Suite from Pulcinella.”

The work is such a delight, Stravinsky’s imagination elaborating on the comic-hero character of Pulcinella, with inspired pairings and clever effects of pizzicato. Violin and oboe were the orchestral heroes of the work, though the deliciously awkward interruption of trombone and bass generated the requisite chortles from the audience.

A little longer on the last release Stern held the audience in hand, letting the hall ring and the audience and musicians revel in the moment of hearing and performing music, together, again.

It was a celebratory, yet introspective concert: fun, thoughtful, and forward-thinking. The 90 minutes flew by, with no intermission. During the concert, it was also announced that Maestro Stern would remain on the podium through the 22/23 season, as the search for a new music director was interrupted by the pandemic. This announcement was met with loud cheers and applause, as was the announcement that the upcoming season is intended to be full capacity, with a roster of favorites and new works. It looks like we’re back in business.

Reviewed Wednesday, May 26, 2021. The program repeats Friday May 28 at 1:30 pm and 8 pm. To learn more 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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