Therese Park

Todays musicians stand on the Philharmonics' shoulders

On Sept. 23, the retired musicians of the Kansas City Symphony were invited to the dress rehearsal of its first subscription concert of 2011, which coincided with the opening concert in the newly built Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

Helzberg Hall, the new home of the Symphony, has 1,600 seats but looks smaller, perhaps due to the lofty ceiling, and the stage takes up about one-third of the entire space. The presence of the giant pipe organ looking down at the stage and the audience seems a bit overpowering, but the tiered seats surrounding the stage provide a cozy feeling. In this hall, no one needs binoculars to watch 80 musicians performing and the conductor on the podium dancing with his baton.

The rehearsal began with Maestro Michael Stern’s greetings to everyone — the musicians on the stage and about 60 spectators, some with cameras, in the audience. He acknowledged the presence of retirees and said that without each musician’s long years of dedicated service, the Symphony would not have come this far. He thanked the contributors for making the dream come true.

With the conductor’s cue, a rapid drumroll resounded and then the national anthem exploded in the hall. Everyone stood up, including all the musicians, except the cello section.

O! say can you see by the dawn’s early light,

What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming…

My mind rushed back to late 1966. It was at the Philharmonic’s first concert of that season at the Music Hall — my very first concert with an American orchestra — and we were playing this solemn music under the baton of Maestro Hans Schwieger, a German conductor who led the orchestra for a quarter of a century until 1973. There was an air of festivity and excitement as a few cadets from the military stood rigidly on the edge of the stage, and the hall was full of people in their finest evening dresses — long skirts, jewelry and bow ties.

That year, the season began in early December instead of October. For more than two months, we musicians had been on strike. We attended countless meetings and held picket signs on the streets of downtown that read, “Support the Local Symphony!” We were glad to be on the stage.

Forty-five years later, as a retiree, I stand in the new concert hall with gleaming hardwood floor and an expensive acoustic system and sing the anthem with surging emotions with my old colleagues. How fast those years have gone by! How much faster will my remaining years go? I thought of those who are no longer with us. They’d have been glad to share this moment with their new colleagues in this new, beautiful hall.

The Symphony’s website only mentions the “dissolution of the Kansas City Philharmonic in 1982,” but the old Philharmonic enriched the lives of many in Kansas City for 49 years. It was born in 1933, in the middle of the Great Depression — the same year the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art opened to the public — under the leadership of American-born Maestro Karl Krueger.

Until its demise in 1982, many world-renowned concert artists performed with us: Marian Anderson, Leonard Bernstein, Henryk Szeryng, David Oistrak, Nathan Milstein, Leonard Rose, Aram Khachaturian and Isaac Stern, the father of Maestro Michael Stern. A handful of Philharmonic musicians are still playing with the Symphony today.

Pianist Emanuel Ax, the featured soloist of the Sept. 23 concert, also had performed with the Philharmonic as a young man and has been the Symphony’s guest artist many times since. Today, he, too, looks seasoned with frost on his head but still plays Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with passion, the way the composer himself would have played.

In this new hall, the past, present and future of the Kansas City Symphony come together in the presence of young and old musicians, contributors and music lovers.

I treasure the time the Philharmonic performed at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1976 during Maurice Peress’ leadership, six years before the Philharmonic died and then resurrected with a new name — the Symphony. (The repertoire was the overture of Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde, Duke Ellington’s Medley in A, and Shostakovitch’s Symphony No. 4.) We received standing ovations from the finicky New Yorkers.

And I will treasure this moment, too, listening to this rehearsal with my old colleagues, in this new hall.

Long live the Symphony! Long live Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts!