After a two-year absence, the Kansas City Symphony’s Bank of America Celebration at the Station is once again going to usher in summer. And at a time when it seems the world is going to hell in a handbasket, this musical blowout is just what the doctor ordered.
Music Director Michael Stern will lead the orchestra and special guest Oleta Adams in a program he Stern describes as “ceremonial, festive and reverent” on May 29 at Union Station, followed by fireworks.
“It’s been a long time since we can be together on that great hill between Union Station and the World War I Museum,” Stern said. “Especially in this increasingly turbulent and divisive moment for all of us, the idea that Kansas City can come together and be together peacefully but also joyously is a great achievement and speaks volumes to what our city is about.”
Although the overall mood of the concert is, of course, celebratory, Stern says it will also acknowledge the solemnity of the Memorial Day holiday, as well as the various troubling events that have been happening in America and around the world.
“We do have this marvelous work by Valerie Coleman, ‘Umoja,’ which means unity,” Stern said. “And we have a few perennial favorites, both patriotic and festive, which are always reassuring to our audience. And when you hear Oleta sing ‘Something Inside So Strong,’ you will be so moved. It is incredibly powerful.”
Stern says that it’s especially important now for the city to join for this communal celebration.
“Of course, we never lose sight of the real reason for Memorial Day, which is to remember and honor the servicemen and women and to remind us of what makes us who we are. It’s not just a chance to picnic and hear some good tunes,” he said. “Of course, good tunes are always a part of it.”
Stern will have two more opportunities to conduct the free annual celebration before he steps down as music director at the end of the 2024 season. The Kansas City Symphony has been auditioning guest conductors as possible replacements for Stern, and the next to take the baton is Gemma New. The New Zealand-born conductor will lead the orchestra in a program of Ravel and Saint-Saëns June 3-5 at Helzberg Hall. The concert will also include the world premiere of a violin concerto by Chris Rogerson.
“Gemma has been going from success to success” Stern said.
Indeed, she has. From playing in a youth orchestra in Wellington, New Zealand, New has broken through several glass ceilings to become the music director of Canada’s Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra and resident conductor of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. She has also been appointed principal guest conductor of both the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the New Zealand Symphony, the first woman to have ever been so.
“She is curious and she is vibrant,” Stern said. “I think the orchestra is really looking forward to meeting her for the first time and making music with her. The spirit of the Kansas City Symphony is really strong, and when you have somebody who gets that right from the get-go, the results are astonishing. So I’m looking forward to an incredibly exciting concert.”
The program will open with Ravel’s colorful “Ma Mere L’Oye” or “Mother Goose” ballet suite, and then guest violinist Benjamin Beilman will perform Rogerson’s Violin Concerto, which was commissioned by the Kansas City Symphony.
“There’s a little bit of envy because I wish I were enjoying the privilege of bringing this piece to life for the first time,” Stern said. “Gemma was generous enough to take this on and to make her debut with a new piece, which is really fantastic on her part. And Ben is the perfect person to write for because he can do anything on the violin. His curiosity and his natural musicality lets a composer write exactly as he or she would like to write.”
This is the third work the symphony has commissioned from Rogerson. According to Stern, his Violin Concerto was inspired by “The Adventures of Tintin,” a comic created by Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi.
“Chris has great imagination, and it should be a fantastic event.”
The concert will conclude with one of classical music’s greatest hits, the Organ Symphony by Camille Saint-Saëns. It’s always a treat to get to hear Helzberg Hall’s Casavant organ, and it’s even more special when it’s played by the instrument’s curator, Jan Kraybill.
“Jan, as far as the Kansas City Symphony goes, is family,” Stern said. “She’s played this piece with us before. Jan is a musician’s musician and she’s also one of the most generous and lovely colleagues you could ever want to work with. There are not enough words to describe how we hold her in such high esteem.”
▪ Celebration at the Station, 8 p.m. May 29. Union Station, 30 W. Pershing Road. Free. kcsymphony.org.
▪ Gemma New conducts Ravel, Rogerson and Saint-Saëns. 8 p.m. June 3 and 4 and 2 p.m. June 5. Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. $25-$92. 816-471-0400 or kcsymphony.org.
Symphony announces new concertmaster
The Kansas City Symphony has announced its next concertmaster, violinist Jun Iwasaki. Iwasaki has a sterling resumé. He is a graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Music’s Concertmaster Academy and has previously served as concertmaster for the Oregon Symphony and the Nashville Symphony. He has performed as soloist with numerous American and international orchestras, including the Atlanta and Pittsburgh symphony orchestras.
Iwasaki will make his first appearance with the Kansas City Symphony on its season finale June 23 to 26 when the orchestra will perform Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. He will make his formal debut at the annual Symphony Ball, Royal Gala: Let’s Have a Ball, on Sept 10.
For more information, kcsymphony.org.