A “Resurrection” in Kansas City

Steven Winn examines the resurgence of orchestral music in Kansas City.

“You hear the trembling of the world,” Kansas City Symphony music director Michael Stern promised the packed-house crowd at Helzberg Hall. He was telling the audience what to expect in the premonitory opening moments of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection,” which the orchestra was about to perform.

When it came, the trembling was a fearsome thing, shimmering and glowering in the strings. Over the next 100 minutes, Stern led his mighty forces (a huge orchestra, choir, two soloists) deeper into the darkness, through patches of pearly bright light and on to a resplendent finish. The hard-working horns shone especially brilliantly, onstage and off, throughout.

For a first-time visitor to this splendid 1600-seat hall, one of two performance spaces in the eye-popping new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, it was impossible not to reflect on what a resurrection, what a rising from the dead, this Super Bowl Sunday afternoon concert represented.

Thirty years ago, in 1982, the city saw its troubled orchestra, the Kansas City Philharmonic, throw in the towel and disband. A group of civic leaders moved quickly to create a successor, the Kansas City Symphony, which performed at the old Lyric Theatre and also played regular concerts at three suburban venues. It was a challenging arrangement. Attracting audiences to the acoustically compromised 3000-seat Lyric in a moribund downtown posed one problem; traveling around to the far-flung suburbs was another. Something had to change.

And so, in a carefully plotted strategy, it did.

With former Kansas City mayor Kay Barnes leading the charge, the arts became the leading edge of a downtown renaissance. As bond measures revitalized the Power and Light District, attracting theaters, galleries and restaurants, plans were put in motion to build the Kauffman Center. Tenants would include the Symphony, Kansas City Ballet and Lyric Opera. Both Helzberg Hall and the adjacent 1800-seat Muriel Kauffman Theatre would be available for touring shows and other presentations. It’s all come to pass.

A performance of Disney’s Aladdin, presented by Kansas City’s fabled Starlight Theatre, was playing opposite the Mahler on Sunday afternoon. The Center’s towering glass-curtained lobby, ablaze with sunlight, was full of symphony patrons and giddy young children dolled up in their Sunday best for a magic carpet ride.

Perched on a hill, the Kauffman Center is a visual stunner. Its soaring rainbow forms are strongly reminiscent of the Sydney Opera House. Inside, the sense of grandeur continues, with a huge lobby anchored by twin stacks of curved exterior entryways for the two theaters. Helzberg Hall, with its swooping side balconies and jauntily canted organ pipes, lends a bit of a Disney Hall flavor to the orchestra’s new home.

Symphony executive director Frank Byrne, in a post-concert conversation, ticked off the organization’s impressive box-office figures. Subscriptions are up 50 percent. This year’s concerts are 81 percent subscribed (87 percent for the pops series) and 100 percent sold out. But he was not about to call the opening of the Kauffman Center a mission-accomplished moment.

“We are determined to make the absolute most of this opportunity,” said Byrne. To that end, the Symphony has multiple programming innovations in the works. They include a series of concerts under 90 minutes, with a lower ticket price that includes a drink, and another series of casual after-work performances. The Kauffman has gotten plenty of Kansas Citians in the door in its opening months. The challenge is to keep them coming back so they make it a habit. One orchestra failed here not so long ago. It’s a cautionary tale no one wants to revisit.

Orchestras are always part of a complicated ecology that merges – or doesn’t – with a particular community. As part of a pronounced upswing in downtown life here, which includes a new sports arena as well as all the various arts and nightlife facilities, the Kansas City Symphony’s move to the Kauffman seems propitiously timed. There’s lots to do here now, new places to dine before or after a concert and a general sense of bustling activity that’s been missing for decades.

Stern, who has been music director here since 2004, also seems to be in the right place at the right time. His pre-concert remarks before the Mahler were at once entertaining and helpful without a speck of patronizing. He gave a big clear beat on the podium and displayed an earnest sense of drama by observing the five-minute silence Mahler proscribed between the first and second movements. Stern seems genuine and authentic, Midwestern values through and through. The orchestra, despite some muddled playing in spots, rose admirably to the occasion.

Residents of the Show Me state can be skeptical. But you never would have known it from the ovation that greeted the climax of the Mahler Second. In the back row of the center mezzanine, one couple in their twenties jumped to their feet and started cheering. So, albeit a little more slowly, did a pair of septuagenarians nearby.  Two of the four single women in front of them were in tears.

Nothing is ever quite so simple as it seems in a musical. But at least for as long as the cheering continued, the fanciful line from the musical Oklahoma! seemed altogether apt: “Everything’s up to date in Kansas City.”

– Steven Winn


  1. Mike says:

    The Lyric Theater was only 1600 seats, not 3000. Where are you getting this information?

  2. Fred Sellers says:

    Great article. Thanks so much. One correction, however: Mayor Kay Barnes was not the force behind the Kauffman Center, and neither was the city. The center was built with private funding, led by Julia Irene Kauffman. Ms Kauffman was carrying out the dream of her late mother Muriel Kauffman and drawing on the financial resources of her late father Ewing Kauffman, founder of the Kauffman Foundation and also founder/long-time owner of the Kansas City Royals baseball team. The city contributed to the project by building the adjacent parking garage.

  3. Steven Winn says:

    Fred : Glad you liked the post. About Kay Barnes, I didn’t say, or mean to, that Kay Barnes was the force behind the Kauffman Center. She was a leading-edge force in the downtown arts renaissance. Full credit goes, as you say, to the private funders and one of the country’s great civic-minded families for the Kauffman Center

    Mike — Right your are about the Lyic’s seating capacity during the KC Symphony’s tenure there: 1600.

  4. Mark Clague says:

    Nice post Steven — I was in KC a bit before the Kauffman Center opened and the excitement was palpable. Peter Witte, dean of the music conservatory, will be at the U-M Orchestra Summit next week and I’m sure we’ll hear more about it.

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