Photo by Timothy Hursley

With the opening of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in mid-September, the word inaugural has been used often and rightfully so. After all, it means to mark a beginning or the first in a projected series. So with that definition in mind, each performance, each performer will get to be part of some sort of firsts.

For the Kansas City Symphony, the group’s “Grand Celebration” Sept. 23-25 follows the weekend after the official opening of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. This first season in Helzberg Hall begins with musical Fireworks by Stravinsky, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor” interpreted by master pianist Emanuel Ax, a world premiere by Kansas City’s own and internationally-lauded composer Chen Yi titled Fountain, and a blaze of brass and full orchestra in Respighi’s The Pines of Rome.

Tim Jepson, the principal timpanist, and Kristi Velicer, assistant principal, second violinist, both have lengthy histories with the Symphony and are ready to celebrate some firsts.

“We have built a tremendous orchestra over the years, but we have reached the limit of how we can and serve the community in the Lyric,” says Jepson, a 28-year member. “We have been brought to this point through strategic planning and good leadership, especially from Shirley Helzberg and the board, but we are maxed out. The Helzberg Hall represents the next phase.”

The Symphony got to practice in the hall in early summer to test the acoustics. Velicer, a 15-year member, says during the first tuning rehearsal, there were tears. “We all seem to know that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for this organization. We always wanted to move to the next step as a group, but the Lyric Theatre presented many challenges. You couldn’t hear across the stage, front to back or side to side. Now, I can hear everyone in real time.”

Velicer says the musicians don’t have to push their instruments. The sound is immediate and heard clearly. “Certainly we needed to get into the space. One of the many beauties of the hall is the sensitivity and range. As a group, we will get to explore such a new palate of tonal colors.” Jepson expects some of the veteran players to enjoy the process of discovery in how to play in Helzberg Hall. “There will also be familiar repertoire, but it will be the chance to seemingly play these pieces for the first time because of the hall’s acoustics. We will be a more precise ensemble,” he says.

The Kansas City Symphony also accompanies the Lyric Opera and the Kansas City Ballet so the group gets to become familiar with both halls. “I am a delegate with the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians and there is such an excitement buzzing as Kansas City’s reputation for a vibrant arts scene continues to grow,” Jepson says.

Jepson looks forward to Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony that requires an expanded orchestra, a large chorus and offstage players. “We will be in a facility that can handle it and have an audience experience it.” Velicer is excited to hear the 5,548-pipe Casavant Organ in Saint-Saën’s Symphony No. 3. “It’s going to be a blockbuster.”

For Alexander Peters, the lead role in the world premiere ballet Tom Sawyer in mid-October is saturated with lots of firsts. The new Todd Bolender Ballet School opened in August and the »» facility has a stage the same size as the stage in the Muriel Kauffman Theatre. “There’s going to be a new building to rehearse in that allows us to really work on the ballet. Then when it’s ready for the Kauffman stage, we simply move over. The greatest thing for a dancer is to be part of a new creative process. That’s what this is – it’s about new choreography in a new space.”

Tom Sawyer – A Ballet in 3 Acts with music by Maury Yeston and choreography by Artistic Director William Whitener, is the first three-act professional ballet based on an American literary masterpiece. Inspired by Mark Twain’s classic work that captures the eternal wonder and adventure of boyhood, the three acts portray all of the well-known episodes from the familiar tale – the painting of the fence, the love for Becky Thatcher, friendship with Huck Finn, the witnessing of the murder, the trial, and the colorful and legendary life along the Mississippi of Twain’s era that has become part of our central American myth and our treasured heritage.

“When I first learned about the ballet, I got a copy of Twain’s book from the library and luckily I picked up an illustrated version so I had a chance to start my own imagination with this character,” he said. “When we met earlier in the year, Mr. Whitener wanted to be real to Mark Twain. He looked deep into the characters. There is a collaborative process. So now I am digging into myself to find this character. It’s a sweet story with the emotions of young love, loss. The audience will be interested in these characters.”

Peters has danced at the School of American Ballet and received the 2008 Danish American Nationals Cultural Exchange Scholarship and spent the summer with the Royal Danish Ballet in their apprentice program. This is his first year with the Kansas City Ballet. “Playing this lead right now, it is my dream. It is happening,” Peters says.

The Harriman-Jewell Series continues its long-held tradition of bringing the best performers in the world to Kansas City and this year, the arts presenter will take nine of its 18 events into the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, including long-time friend David Parsons and his company. Raised in Kansas City, Parsons received an honorary doctorate from the University of Kansas City and an honorary doctorate from the University of Missouri. He founded the contemporary company, Parsons Dance, in 1987 with lighting designer Howell Binkley.

This visit to Kansas City is the 11th with the Harriman-Jewell Series, founded by Dr. Richard Harriman, a William Jewell College professor who sought to enrich his students and colleagues’ lives with good art. Parsons, artistic director, and his company will perform Jan. 28.

“After years of performing in Kansas City, we are excited to be in the new Kauffman Center, specifically the Muriel Kauffman Theatre, a hall named for someone supportive of dance in the city where I was raised. Part of our upcoming appearance is to honor another local arts champion, Richard Harriman, with a new work dedicated to his memory. I was 12 years old when he brought The Joffrey Ballet to Kansas City; that evening changed my life. He was a mentor, longtime friend, and early supporter of my work; he brought Parsons Dance to K.C. in 1988 as part of our first national tour … While I was in town for our 10th Harriman-Jewell Series performance a few years back, it was impressive to see the Kauffman Center rising up from heart of the city. I am inspired by the architecture, but also by the commitment of a community who embraces the performing arts, even in difficult economic times.”

In mid-March, the Lyric Opera of Kansas City presents the local premiere of Nixon in China. Daniel Belcher, a William Jewell graduate and a Liberty resident, will take the stage as Zhou Enlai, the first premier of the People’s Republic of China. Belcher says the character is a moral compass. “I am thrilled to participate in this opera. In many ways it’s a new opera. It had its debut in 1987. The production is technically demanding and I know (artistic director) Ward Holmquist and scene designer Keith Brumley waited to schedule the opera in the new hall. You really need all the bells and whistles to stage this.”

Belcher says John Adams’ Nixon in China is one of the seminal works of the last 50 years. He has performed in other operas with the Lyric. “Over the years, we’ve all discussed the limitations of the productions with a small backstage, small pit, small fly space, but the Kauffman Center opens up the entire realm of possibilities.”

Kellie Houx

Kellie Houx is a writer and photographer. A graduate of Park University, she has 20 years of experience as a journalist. As a writer, wife and mom, she values education, arts, family and togetherness.

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