KCPL Upgrades Extensive Catalog of Orchestral Music Sets

Dawn Mackey is the Library’s technical services manager. She was on the team that spent a year working to catalog the orchestral sets. (photo by Anne Kniggendorf)

James Murray’s basement houses a lot of sheet music. Over his decades-long career, the Kansas City-area orchestra conductor has almost accidentally amassed more music than he knows what to do with by accepting boxes from friends, acquaintances, and sometimes even defunct school and community music programs.

But he’s got a plan: He’ll donate what he has, specifically 50 full sets of orchestral pops pieces, to the Kansas City Public Library’s Orchestral Performance Sets collection — after he gives them another once-over.

“I don’t want to donate something that’s not complete, that’s missing the second clarinet part or something,” Murray says. “They may have to send a van.”

Murray has been a huge fan of the Library’s little-known, 346-piece collection — which was fully digitally cataloged earlier this year — since he was an undergraduate at William Jewell College in 1994 under Phil Posey.

Posey, conductor emeritus of the Kansas City Wind Symphony, knew the Library’s unintentional secret and immediately let Murray in on it.

“He’s like, ‘This is a really amazing collection, and it helps us because we can just check it out like we would check out a book and then return it when we’re done,’” Murray recalls.

For leaders of orchestras and symphonies, the alternative is buying or renting music, which, Murray says, quickly eats up a substantial chunk of their already small budgets at as much as $400 per set. He’s the conductor of three groups and puts on nearly a dozen shows a year, combined — music from the library accounts for about 90% of his programming.

While the Library has had the collection available for checkout for decades, it’s not been easily searchable and has been managed with an antiquated checkout system.

James Murray conducting during a recent Northland Symphony Youth Orchestra performance (photo by Kyle Braun)

The Library’s cataloging supervisor, Wendy Force, began entering the sets into the system in March 2022. She explains that music cataloging is a specialized field; she and her colleagues, past and present, are not specialists and didn’t have a standardized process in place. What they landed on isn’t quite how a collection would be cataloged in a typical music library, but she thinks it works.

“We’ve spelled out the different parts. So, like flute 1, flute 2, oboe 1, oboe 2,” as opposed to codes like F1, F2, O1, O2, “that don’t make intuitive sense to somebody who’s not trained for that particular thing,” Force says. “We want to make these accessible to people in general.”

The other challenge was that each set includes a score for the conductor as well as up to 100 individual sheets of music for the various instruments. Each piece requires its own barcode label to keep it with its set, and, multiplied by 346, that was a daunting undertaking.

Force says the collection includes pieces by 112 different composers, the oldest dating to between 1680 and 1688 by Henry Purcell and the most recent, “Concertina for Tuba,” published by Arthur Frankenphol in 1967.

Murray considers the range “the standard repertoire that orchestras do. So, the Beethoven symphonies, the Haydn symphonies, the Brahm symphonies … all the big-name composers are there: Mendelssohn, Schumann ….”

But, also included are less expected pieces, such as some by female American composer Amy Beach, African American composer William Grant Still, and Danish-born Kansas City-related composer Carl Busch.

Part of the Library’s overall mission is diversifying its materials, and the music sets are no exception. Though finding work that’s in the public domain, written for a full orchestra or symphony by women or people of color, can be tricky.

Murray says the way composers release their work is also a factor. American composer Samuel Barber, for instance, released some of his pieces as rental-only, not public, not purchasable.

“When I rent the parts,” Murray says, “they send them to me, and when we’re done performing them, I have to return them. You cannot purchase that music.”

The Kansas City Public Library’s Orchestral Performance Sets collection contains 346 complete sets of music for what James Murray calls the “standard repertoire” that orchestras perform. (photo by Anne Kniggendorf)

Over the past 20 or so years, the Library has purchased sets at Murray’s suggestion, and it’s also accepted donations, most notably when the Kansas City Philharmonic (1933-1982) cleaned out its own library in the 1960s or 70s.

Such a collection is unusual in the world of public libraries. Murray says the only equivalent that he’s aware of is the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

The Kansas City Public Library’s collection couldn’t be better positioned. By Murray’s count, the city has between eight and 10 orchestras all within an hour of one other — not including those at colleges and universities.

He says he doesn’t know if the wealth of talented performers is a testament to excellent high school music programs or something else, but “when you add choirs and bands there’s a lot of great community music going on in Kansas City.”

CategoriesArts Consortium
Anne Kniggendorf

Anne Kniggendorf is a writer and editor at the Kansas City Public Library, author of Secret Kansas City, and co-author of Kansas City Scavenger. She has local, national, and international bylines, and produces the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast for Literary Hub.

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