Summerfest Celebrates 25 Years of Chamber Music Performance

Violinist Mary Grant was there at the start.

Growing up in Emporia, Kan., Mary Grant loved taking violin lessons, but she didn’t think of violin playing as a job option. That changed in high school, when she attended Interlochen Arts Camp in northwest Michigan. “It occurred to me that … I could do something I really enjoyed for a living,” she said in a recent interview.

Grant has been a violinist with the Kansas City Symphony since 1990. She also runs a private teaching studio and recently started taking voice lessons, which she admitted to enjoying “a ridiculous amount.” She’s traveled all over the world with her husband James, who is executive director of the Global Birthing Home Foundation, a non-profit organization which runs a birthing center in Haiti providing maternal health care.

But it’s gardening on her two-acre plot in Stilwell that brought out an almost wistful enthusiasm. “I like flowers,” she sighed, “too much. Because the peonies are coming up now I think they’re the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, but I think that about every new flower that comes out. “

Grant’s passion for Summerfest, the summer chamber music series of which she is a founding member, was similarly unabashed. Summerfest, known for its expressive performance and inventive programming, celebrates its silver anniversary in July.

“I am really proud of what Summerfest has accomplished in 25 years,” she said. “We’ve played 400 different works in that time period, which seems incredible to me. If somebody had said 25 years ago, ‘Do you think you’d ever play that much chamber music in your life?’ I would have said, ‘No, that’s not possible!’”

The idea started in 1991. “We wanted to offer our music to Kansas City audiences, because there was little to no classical music of any kind in the summer then.”

Together with Lamar Hunt, Jr. (flute), Rebecca Bell (harpsichord), Deborah Wells Clark (harp), and Nancy Lutes (bassoon), they launched a local chamber music festival. Scott Cantrell, then classical music critic for The Kansas City Star, lauded their debut series for “polished technique and musical suavity.”

That initial group “lent itself to either end of the spectrum, from early baroque to new music, with its unusual instrumental combination,” explained Grant. A flexible cohort of musicians provided variety not heard in traditional chamber music repertoire, with over 100 musicians participating throughout the past quarter century.

“I’m really happy to have been involved for this amount of time,” Grant added, “working with such incredible musicians and board members, playing fantastic music, and getting to really know the audience so well.”

Most of the season’s concerts are retrospective, with selections that are representative of the group or have special meaning for the ensemble. But the anniversary concert on July 25th in UMKC’s White Hall will be more elaborate, featuring twice the number of musicians playing bigger chamber works they’ve always wanted to perform, such as William Walton’s Façade.

Though Summerfest has received critical commendation for its quality of performance, the audience support is more telling, perhaps, of its continued success.

One of the original venues was St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, which hosted receptions after each performance. “That turned out to be a great thing for us because it let us mingle with the audience. They would stay and we would stay, too,” Grant laughed, “for the food, of course, and the great company.”

They outgrew the space at St. Mary’s, but the post-concert reception tradition remained. It continues with the anniversary concert gala at UMKC’s Pierson Auditorium.

“It will be much more …” Grant paused, searching for the right word, “more lavish. It will be a real celebration of our 25th year.”

For more information about Summerfest concerts and tickets visit summerfestkc.org.

Photo by Nathan Lang

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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