Michael Stern (left) has led the Kansas City Symphony for 16 years and will continue in the post until 2024. (photo by Todd Rosenberg)

The Kansas City Symphony Seeks a New Music Director

It’s been 17 years since the Kansas City Symphony conducted a search for a music director.

In September 2019, the organization announced that Michael Stern would be stepping down as music director, having served one of the longest tenures with a major American orchestra.

Danny Beckley, executive director (photo by Randall Baughn)

“We are ready for somebody new to come in with their own set of skills and their own artistic merit to take this orchestra in a new direction, a new artistic vision,” said Danny Beckley, executive director of the Kansas City Symphony. He’s been with the organization since July 2019.

But you can’t just put out a Help Wanted sign. Selecting a new music director is a complex, multi-faceted, potentially years-long process.

Early in that process, the symphony formed the Music Director Search Task Force, a committee of members from the administration, orchestra, board and community.

Then, in March, the country went into lockdown. With no concerts and no travel, the search was put on hold. Fortunately, the symphony and Stern reached an agreement to conduct through the 2023/24 season, easing some of the pressure. 

It should be noted, however, that though it is an extensive process, it’s also confidential. Candidates under consideration won’t be shared publicly, in respect for individuals’ current positions.

However, the public will likely have the chance to see the candidates in action, as guest conductors this season and next. “Nobody is going to be hired that hasn’t conducted the orchestra,” Beckley assured.

So what is the Kansas City Symphony looking for in this next artistic leader?

“Our search is informed heavily by the success Michael Stern has seen here,” said Beckley.

Raymond Santos, principal clarinet (photo by Jenny Wheat)

Raymond Santos, principal clarinet agreed. “The Kansas City Symphony has been on a meteoric rise under [his] guidance . . . Now we need to find the right person for him to hand the baton to to continue our ascendant pursuit of excellence,” he wrote in an email.

But they aren’t looking for Stern 2.0.

“I think a healthy search for an artistic leader means that you leave some questions unanswered; you leave yourself available to be shaped,” said Beckley. “You don’t predetermine the vision of the next person.”

Think of it is an intricate Venn diagram. “There are all these different dimensions,” said Beckley. The search takes into consideration the needs and opinions of various stakeholders: the orchestra members, patrons, audience, administration
and community.

“We are looking for a lot of things!” confirmed Santos. “The first that comes to mind is a musician with passionate and clear musical ideas, who supportively challenges the orchestra to perform at the highest technical and artistic levels.”

Simultaneously, the board is searching for someone who not only performs well with the orchestra, but also communicates effectively with the public on and off stage: in person, with the media and online.

“I am personally looking for a good partner,” said Beckley, “somebody that I can work with very closely in leading the organization.”

Diversity is another important element, he said. “We also must think about the ways that we communicate, invite and engage so that anyone who wants to hear us feels welcome to, and feels like they have an ownership stake in us — that we are theirs . . . Our next music director will be a key partner in advancing this cause.”

Michael Stern, music director (photo by Todd Rosenberg)

Guest Conductors on Parade

And while the symphony typically invites a few guest conductors throughout the year, this season, the symphony welcomes nine guest conductors for the Classical Series, and we’ll likely see nine or 10 guest conductors next season, too.

“There has been a tremendous amount of rigor just in whittling down the list of potential names, from dozens and dozens down to 10 to 20 that we might even consider inviting to conduct the orchestra,” Beckley said. “From there it gets infinitely smaller once you start talking about the sheer rigor of the music director process.”

Starting this November, KCS welcomes Peter Oundjian and Johannes Debus. In 2022, we’ll see Joshua Weilerstein, Eduardo Strausser, Michael Francis, Christian Reif, Paolo Bortolameolli, Gemma New and Ryan Bancroft.

“All conductors (or for that matter, all musicians) have different strengths and weaknesses, and seeing candidates on the podium will help us get a feel for the chemistry that works best for everyone,” wrote Santos.

Despite the tight-lipped process, audience members are invited to share their opinions of the guest conductors — and any other aspect of the concert experience. The symphony regularly solicits and collects audience feedback. “During the music director search, we will continue to lean on that very heavily,” said Beckley. “We are going to treat everybody the same from the audience standpoint, and we are going to be looking for that feedback on . . . what our audience actually likes in a conductor.”

The big ineffable question is: What is a good fit for Kansas City? “Somebody who can really embrace that very close, casual, familial culture that exists here in Kansas City,” said Beckley. “Somebody who understands Kansas City more broadly, and how Kansas City relates to the rest of the country, and the importance that this isn’t a flyover city, that we have a really rich culture here.”

The hope is that Stern will be able to announce the new music director and help with the transition, stepping into his new official role as music director laureate.

“Our future is bright,” said Santos. “We are eager to find the right partner that will help us reach even higher levels of performance and engagement with our audiences.”

The Kansas City Symphony performs work by Florence Price, Richard Strauss and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov Nov. 5-7 under the direction of Peter Oundjian. For a full list of performances visit www.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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