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.

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