Michael Stern Concludes Tenure as Music Director of the Kansas City Symphony with Thoughtful and Expansive Program

Michael Stern conducts his final performances as music director of the Kansas City Symphony in Helzberg Hall. Credit: Eric T. Williams/Kansas City Symphony

“This orchestra is a jewel,” said Michael Stern from the stage of Helzberg Hall at Friday’s performance of the Kansas City Symphony. 

Stern’s term as music director of the Kansas City Symphony concludes this weekend, with a gratifying and uplifting performance featuring music by Felix Mendelssohn, Samuel Barber, Jean Sibelius and the surprise inclusion of Johannes Brahms arranged by Bright Sheng.

For over 20 years, Stern has worked with the Kansas City Symphony, first as a guest conductor in 2003, then as candidate, then music director, a position he’s held for 19 seasons. 

This orchestra is a different beast than what he first encountered, much of that due to his leadership and influence. About three fourths of the current roster are musicians who joined the group during Stern’s tenure. The move to Helzberg Hall in September 2011, built specifically for orchestral performance, has allowed these combined talents to expand and grow. 

For this culminating concert, Stern programmed works of particular significance and substance, meaningful to himself and the group. Throughout this farewell season, he’s selected music that highlighted the individual and collective voices of the orchestra, and this concert was no different. What was different was that this concert had no guest soloist (much of the season featured internationally acclaimed guest soloists, many personal friends of Stern). “I wanted it to be just us,” Stern said during the pre-concert talk and it was: just Stern and the 80-member ensemble, showcasing their colors and capabilities. 

Before any music was played, there was a standing ovation for Stern from a boisterous crowd and kind words from Julia Irene Kauffman, thanking Stern for his leadership and helping to fulfill the promise and possibility of the Kauffman Center (originally the vision of Kauffman’s mother, Muriel). 

Stern chose Felix Mendelssohn’s beloved Overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as the opener, a piece that he first performed with the orchestra in June 2004. Stern led the group sans score. 

In the Mendelssohn, you could almost hear the forest, even if you don’t know the backstory: scurrying creatures, shadowy paths, and dappled mysteries — ”magic and fairies and gossamer and silver,” described Stern — and the orchestra seemed to revel in that ethereal world. 

It’s perhaps not surprising, but still appreciated, that Stern, as a scholar of American history and leader of an American orchestra, has celebrated work by American composers throughout his time with the Kansas City Symphony. To that end, they performed Samuel Barber’s Symphony no. 1 (a piece Stern and the orchestra recorded in 2015 for their sixth album, “One Movement Symphonies”). 

The taut twenty minute piece is like a fascinating mosaic, with different shapes and textures pieced together. Barber, only in his twenties at the time, crafted myriad youthful inspirations into the work: dramatic crescendi, romantic string lines, galloping rhythms, rumbling timpani, heroic brass…evoking a touch of mystery here, some mounting chaos there, lush moments like a swan on a pond, grandiose ones like the glint of dawn sunlight. Of the individual voices, Kristna Fulton’s performance as principal oboe stood out.

If Barber’s symphony was a mosaic, Jean Sibelius’ Symphony no. 2 is a tapestry. In introducing this piece, Stern referenced the inherited themes woven into the work and its reception, themes of social justice, yearning for freedoms, for wrongs righted, for faith the struggle will be rewarded, and their application in the struggles of today. 

Sibelius did a masterful job of weaving melodies, rhythmic motifs, and colors together through the four movements of the symphony. Throughout, there are echoes, elongations, underlying pulses and insistent rhythms, pastoral folk-like melodies, chorales and fanfares, broad sweeping lines and summits to ascend. 

The work was decisive and magnetic, an argument you can’t help but agree with. The orchestra performed with exemplary control and power, a strong presentation throughout: strings resonant, buoyant pizzicati, wonderful solo moments from oboe, trumpet, cello, and flute, and exposed moments for viola, horn, tuba, and bass. 

The symphony’s final moments are a sort of conclusion cup game, as Sibelius brought back material, issuing swells and shifts, starburst interjections, transitioning to the low voices as the inexorable march of time, shimming strings like glimmers on the deepest ocean, and ascendant, forthright brass, concluding with broad chords akin to the traditional “amen” cadence.

“Amen,” derived from Hebrew, borrowed into many languages and used to denote agreement, affirmation, or part of a blessing, translates into “truly” or “to have faith” or “so be it.” 

And so it was, truly, a fitting end, but after a rousing and extended ovation, Stern and orchestra treated the audience to an encore of sorts, a piece from their 2024 release, “Brahms Reimagined.” 

“Black Swan (After Brahms’ Op. 118)” was arranged for orchestra by Bright Sheng, from Brahms’ Intermezzo Op. 118, no. 2, for solo piano. The original piece was written for Brahm’s longtime friend Clara Schumann, a gift for her emotional support throughout Brahms’ artistic journey and their cherished relationship (Stern even became a little emotional in talking about it). 

The piece, a lovingly imagined version, was a sweet and heartfelt addition to the concert (with its overarching bombast and grandeur), like a warm hug after a convivial evening with close friends. 

In only a few weeks, come July, Stern will become music director laureate of the Kansas City Symphony, the first to hold that position. Even as he and the orchestra move on to their next chapters, their time together has set a trajectory for artistic heights, their histories forever intertwined. 

“Stern’s Farewell” repeats at Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday, June 22, 8 p.m. and Sunday June 23, 2 p.m. On Sunday, Kansas City Symphony’s performance will stream live on medici.tv. 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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