Taking the show on the road

Bach Aria Soloists (left to right): Hannah Collins, Elisa Williams Bickers, Elizabeth Suh Lane and Sarah Tannehill Anderson in Salaya in Thailand, where they have performed twice as ensemble-in-residence for the Thailand International Composition Festival, founded by UMKC alum Narong Prangcharoen. (photo by Henry Lane)

When local musicians travel, they burnish KC’s reputation as a cultural hotbed

Kansas City is a vibrant arts town but still seems to get the flyover treatment. That’s a shame, when our community of artists and musical heritage are some of the region’s greatest assets. In fact, for this heritage, Kansas City is the only city in the United States to be designated a UNESCO Creative City of Music.

Our artists have the potential to be the city’s greatest ambassadors, demonstrating the varied, world class offerings we Kansas Citians have come to cherish and expect.

We’re overdue to let the rest of the world in on the secret.

“There are artists performing at the highest level right here in Kansas City. We’re doing interesting generative work as well. It’s not just the technical part, not just the interpretive work, but the generative work here is really interesting,” said Erin McGrane, executive director of Ensemble Ibérica.

Traditionally, an artist built an audience through a combination of activities: concertizing, recording and touring, hoping to attract publicity and bolster their reputation. Along with producing recordings, out-of-town performances are a necessary career component to be considered for membership in the Recording Academy, which bestows the Grammy Awards. A small but growing group of Kansas City musicians are members of the Recording Academy.

While the 21st century brought the promotional possibilities of social media into play, the international health crisis of COVID-19 decimated many opportunities for musicians, and many arts organizations are still not back to pre-pandemic audience numbers or fiscal bottom lines.

So taking the show on the road, whether it’s one artist or 80, can be a daunting prospect.

McGrane has plenty of experience with touring, as part of the duo Victor & Penny. For nearly 10 years, up until the pandemic shut down travel, they toured the U.S., visiting more than 40 states, and also performed abroad.

“There is something that happens when you tour,” she said. “Becoming a touring artist is a different thing, and there is a level of professionalism that is required to do that. There’s a level of commitment.”

As an administrator, she helped organize the funding and arrangements for Ensemble Ibérica’s recent trip to New York City to perform in Carnegie Hall during the group’s 10th-anniversary season last May as part of a collaborative concert hosted by New York City-based Colombian guitarist Nilko Andreas.

“It exceeded my expectations,” said McGrane. “To see these Kansas City artists, they absolutely shone.”

“A shift happened in the way that they viewed themselves. A shift happened in me, in the way I view our artistry,” she said. “Just to be there in that place where so much art has been presented . . . and to know that our people stood on that stage and got a standing ovation was significant to me and makes me feel even more energized about working in the arts here in Kansas City and continuing to grow this community.”

Coincidentally, Kansas City’s Opus 76 string quartet also made their Carnegie Hall debut last season and received a standing ovation as well, a clear sign that musicians in Kansas City are presenting their best on the world’s greatest stages.

Besides the New York City trip, Ensemble Ibérica has traveled regionally — places like Alma, Kansas, and Bentonville, Arkansas — and internationally — with trips to Ireland, Argentina, Turkey, Spain, Portugal, and a residency in Mexico.

But they’ve found that the reputation of Kansas City as a music town precedes them — because of one notable musician.

“People may be surprised, but most places, especially in Europe, really know a lot about Charlie Parker. You just say Kansas City and that’s what they think of immediately,” said Beau Bledsoe, Ensemble Ibérica’s founder and artistic director. “You know, it’s a little weird because a lot of people here don’t really appreciate his legacy as much as people in other parts of the world.”

Violinist Elizabeth Suh Lane, founder of Bach Aria Soloists, knows the advantages of travel throughout her career. As a young up-and-coming orchestral violinist, she toured monthly with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe for two years and also traveled as a member of the London Symphony Orchestra.

“(Travel) is what I think every musician should do, especially early on in their careers,” said Suh Lane.

When she moved back to Kansas City and started a family, she founded BAS, developing a local concert series. Over time (and as her children grew up), travel became another facet of the group’s evolution. Along with regional performances as a touring performer through the Missouri Arts Council, BAS has performed at the Snow Pond Music Festival in Maine and twice in Thailand as ensemble-in-residence for the Thailand International Composition Festival, founded by UMKC alum Narong Prangcharoen.

“The touring aspect becomes much more selective and I think much more precious in a way,” said Suh Lane. “At this time in my life, I pick the places where we really would want to go, something that’s really worthwhile, that I know the musicians really want to do.”

Bledsoe also toured extensively earlier in his career, with tenor Nathan Granner. “Doing these micro tours often, these regional things where we’ll hit four or five towns, that’s actually feasible. You can do that and make it work,” said Bledsoe.

Ensemble Ibérica performed last May in Carnegie Hall as part of a collaborative concert hosted by New York City-based Colombian guitarist Nilko Andreas during the group’s 10th-anniversary season. (photo by Dan White)

The Role of Grants and Fundraising

So, okay, once you’ve made the decision to become a touring artist, how can you achieve that goal? Touring isn’t as lucrative as it once was, so artists and organizations often secure a base fee, before they ever hit the road, through grants and fundraising.

For their New York trip, Ensemble Ibérica relied on a combination of donations, fundraising and their “patron trip” model.

In some circumstances, both presenting organizations and touring ensembles can apply for grants. At other times, once a prominent venue is secured, bandleaders will hustle to book adjacent dates, sometimes with masterclasses or educational presentations, at communities either nearby or on the circuit.

Funding for travel has come from presenting organizations, private donors, sponsorships, grant-making organizations like Mid-America Arts Alliance (M-AAA) — even some government funding — and often a combination of sources.

Some organizations earmark funds specifically for travel, like M-AAA’s Jazz Road travel grants, for jazz artists in the region.

Both Missouri and Kansas require resident artists to register as touring performers to be eligible for grants. Local groups as varied as Marimba Sol de Chiapas, Fountain City Brass Band and Kantorei of Kansas City are registered with the Missouri Arts Council, while Lyric Arts Trio, NAVO and Störling Dance tour performers through the Kansas Creative Arts and Industries Commission. Applications are closed for the current season for both states (September in Missouri, October in Kansas), so aspiring travelers should put that on their to-do list for 2024.

Collaboration is Key

Collaboration is also key to creating more opportunities — building a network of artists outside one’s immediate community. Bringing artists to Kansas City, creating exchanges and building those relationships also serve the ambassadorial role. Local musicians meet fellow artists at festivals, through Kansas City Sister City organizations, and in other disciplines.

“We work cross discipline here in a way that many other cities in the U.S. don’t,” said McGrane.

Bach Aria Soloists’ international travel was sparked by collaborations in Kansas City with composer Prangcharoen. In February, BAS travels to the Cayman Islands to perform with trumpeter Rodney Marsalis (who played with the group in 2022), at the Cayman Arts Festival.

Collaborations are integral to Ensemble Ibérica’s concert series and travel plans, often with artists they’ve met through the Folk Alliance International festival, frequently held in Kansas City. When Ensemble Ibérica travels, they coordinate with host artists, connecting the music-making happening in Kansas City with different genres and cultures.

Nilko Andreas, who hosted Ensemble Ibérica’s Carnegie Hall performance and collaborates frequently with Kansas City artists, returns to town for a performance at the 1900 Building Nov. 17 with Ensemble Ibérica, following an October performance with the Cecilia Series.

Positive experiences with out-of-town guests further enhance the scene’s reputation.

“We’ve done a ton of what I call ‘ambassador work,’” said McGrane of her touring days with Victor & Penny, incorporating information about Kansas City’s musical legacy into their presentations. “We didn’t set out to do that, but we found we needed to . . . people would be like, ‘wow, you’re from Kansas City, what’s going on in Kansas City?’ People really don’t know. They really had no idea.”

That ambassador work is the responsibility of any artist coming out of Kansas City. Building the community’s reputation outside of the region enhances and strengthens the community as a whole.

This season, communities throughout the Midwest and around the world are getting a taste of our homegrown talent. Trumpet and organ duo Clarion toured Scotland in July 2023. Te Deum traveled to Des Moines, Iowa, and Lincoln, Nebraska, in September for their inaugural tour. Ensemble Ibérica hosted a patron trip to Turkey in October. The award-winning Fountain City Brass Band performs in England in November and in Hannibal, Missouri, in December. Kansas City Chorale performs in Manhattan, Kansas, in December and Kirksville, Missouri, in March. The William Baker Festival Singers tour multiple dates in Chicago in April 2024.

Whether it’s a handful of concerts in neighboring communities or a series of events in another country, audiences will learn what local fans already know: Kansas City musicians are world class.

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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