KC Symphony director Michael Stern talks about his swan song.

Photography by Todd Rosenberg.

When Michael Stern took over as KC symphony director nearly two decades ago, he knew it had been years since the orchestra had tried to tackle pieces by Gustav Mahler, a composer many classical musicians strive to master.

Stern was determined to make this happen.

Since then, the musicians have become rather familiar with Mahler, the beloved Bohemian composer who wrote pieces so monumental and intricate that virtually every emotion of the human condition is captured in the music. Mahler believed the symphony is the embodiment of our world, which is why so many classical musicians view his work as omnipotent. Stern, with his musicians, began approaching Mahler in a consistent manner. 

Now Stern has been lauded for transforming the symphony into one of the top twenty-five orchestras in the country, as ranked by the League of American Orchestras. He grew the symphony’s audience base and shaped the classical music programming by not only showcasing his exploration of virtually all of Mahler’s symphonic catalog but also premiering new works by American composers.

With that in mind, Stern can’t think of two better Mahler pieces to conduct in his final season than “Songs of a Wayfarer” and “Resurrection.” Both pieces reflect the program’s overarching theme of what it means to search for home and highlight the orchestra’s accomplished understanding of Mahler. The symphony’s forthcoming season, with performances of Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2, culminates June 21–23, 2024 and marks the end of Stern’s nineteen-year directorship. 

A graduate of Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music and founding artistic director of Tennessee’s Iris Orchestra (newly renamed Iris Collective), Stern will stay in his concurrent role as music director of Colorado’s National Repertory Orchestra and Connecticut’s Orchestra Lumos. He will take on a new role as artistic advisor to the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra in Canada. 

Kansas City magazine talked with Stern about his time with the symphony and its upcoming performances featuring orchestral legends Yo-Yo Ma and Joshua Bell, along with opera singers Joyce DiDonato and Kelley O’Connor, pianist Yefim Bronfman, and violinists Pamela Frank and Philippe Quint. 

How do you prepare for a concert? For me, preparing for every concert is a three-piece puzzle: 1. A complete and thorough personal preparation to make sure I have a clear idea of what we all hope will happen in the rehearsals; 2. A process of efficient hard work, discovery and experimentation in the rehearsals so that everyone is on the same breath; and 3. Never take for granted the privilege of being on stage with musicians and music you love. When we are all in the moment, trusting each other and the music itself, special things can happen spontaneously, and that can lead to magical performances.

You’ve had a long tenure with this symphony. What kind of imprint do you think you’ve left? My goal was always to leave the orchestra better, stronger, happier and more poised for success and greatness than when I arrived. With humility, and sharing credit with many other people, especially our musicians, I think we have accomplished that together. My overarching guide always was, and will always remain, my unflagging loyalty to the musicians and my abiding belief in the importance of music and the arts in Kansas City.

You’ve underscored the camaraderie of the Kansas City Symphony. As a conductor, is that something you can immediately sense in the orchestra’s performance? Absolutely. Any guest conductor who has happily stood on our podium would agree that the energy, open-minded friendliness, ease and immense talent of the musicians in the orchestra are all immediately palpable. I am most thrilled that the instantaneous electricity between the musicians and Matthias Pintscher (Kansas City Symphony’s incoming director) ignited so powerfully in his very first rehearsal. How lucky for all of us, and for Kansas City, that he will be the next music director.

Who are some of your favorite composers and why? There is a certain core repertoire which I hold very close to my heart: Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler and Strauss, as well as early twentieth-century French music, constantly reveal new miracles every time I come back to that music. I couldn’t describe my musical aesthetic without emphasizing American music, from Barber, Copland and Bernstein through the exciting voices of our time. Honestly, though, I can’t really answer more definitively, since the question is as impossible for me as asking me which one food I prefer or which of my children is my favorite. I’ll dodge the question with another truthful but off-point answer: The music I love best is whatever music is in front of me in the moment of commission on stage. One lesson drummed into me since my earliest childhood was that whatever music you play must be the most important to you in that instant. Without that, your conviction in the performance will not come across to the audience.

Can you tell me about this year’s classical music program? My first concert as a guest conductor with the Kansas City Symphony was in the spring of 2003. My final one as music director will be in June of 2024. My thoughts keep coming back to the musicians themselves and the connection we have built with our audiences and our friends in the community. So I wanted this next season to be all about that. In each program, I looked to highlight the individual and collective virtuosity of our musicians and also find a breadth and excitement of repertoire which would underscore what our music making has come to mean to me, including the music of today. In addition, it is very touching to me that so many extraordinary people—personal friends and great friends of our symphony—have agreed to come and bring their artistry to this special season. 

What’s next for you? More music, wherever my curiosity and possibilities may lead. And watching, laughing and loving as my children grow. I only missed two concerts in my entire tenure in Kansas City. The first was in 2006, when my first daughter was born, and the second was in 2009, when my younger daughter came into the world. They are now both in high school, the older one graduating this year. I don’t know where the time went.  

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