Hitting the High Notes

The Kansas City Symphony conductor Michael Stern discusses the upcoming season, the influence of Leonard Bernstein, and how he fell in love with conducting.

   Seated at a table inside Webster House, Michael Stern has just had another hectic day across the street at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. But scanning the Kansas City Symphony's list of dynamic programs for the 2015-2016 Classical Series provides a bit of a respite. Bold, smart programming has long been a calling card under Stern, who's been the music director for the symphony since 2005.

     The new season begins on Sept. 18-20 with a diverse offering: Shostakovich's blistering "Festive Overture," Schumann's Konzertstück for Four Horns, American composer Walter Piston's Suite from The Incredible Flutist, Haydn's Sinfonia Concertante and Ravel's ever-popular Boléro. The second concert on Oct. 23-25 is a celebration of Italian operatic composers such as Puccini, Rossini and Verdi and selections from their works such as Madama Butterfly and La Traviata, featuring the Kansas City Symphony Chorus. The season culminates June 16-19, 2016 with a performance of Beethoven’s final and epic Ninth Symphony, including the “Ode to Joy” of the last movement. 

     Meanwhile, Stern's recording schedule with the Kansas City Symphony just keeps getting busier. Their disc of music by Camille Saint-Saëns was released in June, while recordings of The Planets by Gustav Holst and music from former composer-in-residence Adam Schoenberg are also in the hopper on the Reference Recordings label. Stern also revealed the selections for their next recording session: Samuel Barber's Symphony No. 1, Jean Sibelius' Symphony No. 7 and Alexander Scriabin's "Poem of Ecstasy."

     Besides providing a preview of the 2015-2016 season, Stern discusses how his conducting teacher, Max Rudolf, and the greatest conductor America has ever produced, Leonard Bernstein, had a profound effect on him musically.


435: At what point did you realize that you not only wanted to have a career in music, but that you wanted a career in conducting?

Michael Stern: After college. I was a player all the way through college, violin and viola. And I went to the Curtis Institute afterwards. I entered the Curtis Institute as a player, but really what brought me into conducting was coming across the book that my teacher, who was not then my teacher, had written. The second edition of The Grammar of Conducting had come out I guess in the 1970s. The first edition came out in the 1950s. And his book was the first one that I had seen that really emphasized the art of conducting.

He starts the book by saying, "Part magician, part actor, part psychologist; the role of a conductor is difficult to define." The act of studying a score and then being able to realize it with human beings engaged, and how not to piss off those human beings in the process of engaging, all of that was very interesting to me. The idea of being able to shape the direction of a phrase without actually speaking, but just breathing with all these people who are breathing at exactly the same time, it's a very powerful thing. It has nothing to do with following a stick. That's nonsense. And he knew that.

After I graduated and I was already the assistant in Cleveland, I re-edited that book with him for the third edition. That was my thank-you back to him.


435: Your dad [violin virtuoso Isaac Stern] had a great relationship with Leonard Bernstein. How much did Bernstein also inspire you to pick up a baton?

Stern: Hugely. He was around in my growing-up, but I was not chummy with him on a daily or weekly basis. But he and my father were very friendly: close colleagues, lifelong friends and collaborators. I was lucky enough to play under him when he came and conducted the Curtis Orchestra two times. That was a very different experience for me, because I had seen him all my life conducting. To play under him, you understood immediately what a great musician he was. Especially in rehearsal, he was sometimes all over the place, just talking. But he knew how to give an upbeat, and he knew how to shape a phrase, and he knew how to connect with people. It was galvanizing.

I remember thinking this at the time: Other people are really good, and they tell you how to play, they tell you when to play, they tell you how fast to play or how loudly to play. When you were sitting there playing for Lenny, you knew why to play. It was like my life depends on making this work right now, because he was right there and I'd never seen a conductor [Leonard Bernstein] that engaged and in-the-moment. Plus, it was fantastically on-the-breath. It was something to be seen. He was a great pianist; I think he's a great composer; a really interesting speaker. But as a conductor, he was peerless.


435: And you got to see him conduct the New York Philharmonic many times.

Stern: That was my hometown orchestra growing up. I saw him rehearse the Philharmonic, saw him conduct the Philharmonic. Even later, when he got so old and he was not well, there was still something so elementally Lenny about it. He would become younger on the podium, and there was this ease of being in music, this incredible engagement. There's not a single American conductor, I think, who can rightly say that he wasn't influenced by Bernstein.


435: If the ramp-up to World War I was the overarching theme for this past season, is there one for the 2015-2016 season?

Stern:  Not in the same way. I'm thinking of going back to a more overarching theme the following season. This next season, it's putting the spotlight back on the orchestra.

My point is that you have to put your money where your mouth is. And I continue to say how proud I am of the orchestra as we make this traversal through every season, and it gets better and better. So prove it. Show it. I'm really excited about that opening program. And the second program is like hopping on a quick trip to Italy.


435: Is that a program you've always wanted to do?

Stern: A little bit! I like the idea of exploring operatic repertoire with the chorus. I think they also have been on the ascent in the last few years. It's also beautiful music, and they're not only the greatest-hits choruses, there are things like the orchestral stuff — Puccini's "Capriccio Sinfonico" is an incredible piece. I think it's a really fun idea.

michael stern kansas city symphony

435: The music of Maurice Ravel was obviously a cornerstone to last season, and "Boléro" is on the program for opening night.

Stern: Ravel himself didn't particularly prize the piece [“Bolero”]. He thought it was an exercise. But it works because, first of all, the melodic shape is like an earworm, and it has this kind of sensuality to it, which lends itself to the different colors of the orchestra that are all featured. Also, he got the hypnotic feeling of the rhythm just right.


435: You're an admirer of Sibelius. What went into the decision to perform Sibelius' Seventh Symphony [Jan. 29-31]?

Stern: The Seventh Symphony is a desert-island piece. It's an incredibly spiritual piece. Reference Recordings makes really good CDs, and we have two more in the pipeline already, but we are planning our next project. And I decided to pitch to them, which they happily accepted, the idea of putting together on one disc, three great one-movement symphonies of the 20th century. Because it's an interesting conceit. It's a full symphony, yet concatenated into one concise piece, so it's not quite a tone poem.

And Barber's First Symphony is modeled on Sibelius' Seventh. I think it's an interesting thing when one great composer takes inspiration from another and comes up with something utterly original, because Barber's First Symphony I think is a genius piece, and it's a piece that I love. The "Poem of Ecstasy," you can love it or hate it, but you have to admire its over-the-topness.


435: How has the arts community changed in Kansas City since your first day on the job? What makes the arts in Kansas City so great?

Stern: I think the arts, generally speaking, have taken more and more with every passing year their rightful place at the table. And that's the way it should be. That shows the maturity and the depth of Kansas City. I mean, look at what's happening downtown. Look at the revitalization of downtown, First Fridays, Crossroads. The Nelson-Atkins is still, as it always was, but increasingly and innovatively, a great museum. And there's the excitement of the people in terms of defining ourselves in Kansas City as having these things!

Ten years ago, if the Royals wanted to celebrate being in the World Series, who would've thought that the symphony would play at the World Series? Now, it's like, "Let's put our A-team there." I've been here 10 years, and there is no recognizable corner of the arts scene that hasn't improved and changed and developed in those 10 years. It's not just the building. The building is incredible. But the building itself would be nothing if it didn't nurture and celebrate the arts inside. The fact that it's such a living, breathing place, and it attracts so many people, I think is a huge testament to the city.


   For more info on the symphony’s season visit kcsymphony.org. In addition, the Kansas City Symphony has been invited to play “The Star Spangled Banner” prior to their Red Thursday home opener game of the Kansas City Chiefs against the Denver Broncos on Sept. 17.

Categories: Arts & Entertainment, Music, People