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In The Midwest Chamber Ensemble, 'Self-Less,' Ego-Less Musicians Help Each Other Shine

C.J. Janovy

There aren’t many places in town where an exceptionally talented high school musician can play a concert next to a professional. But that’s what the Midwest Chamber Ensemble has been doing for three years now.

Many of the ensemble's 35 musicians are students at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance, but others from all over the community — many quite young.

"We have students from the University of Kansas high school students, local professionals – maybe they’ve been out of school for a couple of years, maybe they’re subbing with the Kansas City Symphony or playing gigs around town, maybe they're adjunct-teaching at one of the smaller universities," says Steve Lewis, the ensemble's director. "They come and play with us."

Lewis is a French horn player who came to Kansas City five years ago for advanced studies in conducting at the UMKC Conservatory. Back when he was an undergrad in North Carolina, he had opportunities to play with older students and professional musicians. He wanted to create something similar here.

"You really learn to work with people in such a small ensemble," says Adee Dancy, a cellist. She's a freshman at the Conservatory, but she’s been playing with the Midwest Chamber Ensemble since she was in high school at Lee’s Summit. Dancy has played with bigger orchestras, such as the Kansas City Youth Symphony. In such a large organization, she says, a player tends to blend in.

"When there’s only or three of you, it becomes a lot more important that you really know your part, and you really practice it before you come in, and that you're constantly paying attention and really working to notice the entire group when you’re playing."

Dancy says she was nervous to play with the group at first, but she shouldn’t have been. The older players are eager to be mentors.

"It’s amazing to see these older students or young professionals working with maybe a high school student or undergraduate player," says Lewis. "It’s one thing to be told how to do something, but it’s a different experience to be told that and then sit next to someone, really learning that and having that reinforced through constant performance."

Credit C.J. Janovy / KCUR
Midwest Chamber Ensemble musicians in rehearsal (from left): Lauren Chambers, French horn; Katherine Woolsey, oboe; Laura Zitelli, clarinet; Ross Edgar, bassoon; Matt McGrory, bass; Irene Diaz-Gill, cello.

Ramiro Miranda, a 27-year-old violinist who is the ensemble’s associate director, says it's exciting to be in a group that's "not about getting a grade. It’s completely different from the academic environment."

Miranda came to the United States from Paraguay, thanks to an exchange program. After studying at Pittsburg State University, he ended up at the UMKC Conservatory, where he heard about the Midwest Chamber Ensemble and what Steve Lewis was doing. Both of them were students of Robert Olson, the conservatory’s director of orchestras.

Olson tells the graduate students in his conducting program that they have to get experience at the podium.

"You know, you can wave your arms in the closet all you want — (musicians) always play right when there’s nobody there — so you have to have an orchestra to practice," Olson says. He also tells them they have to come up with some sort of unique idea. "And then as you apply for jobs, people will notice because you’ve done something special."

Olson says that’s what Lewis has done with the Midwest Chamber Ensemble. At first, the ensemble had a built-in audience at the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection, where Lewis works as the music director. Getting the word out beyond that was a struggle, but audiences are finding them, says Miranda.

Credit C.J. Janovy / KCUR
The Midwest Chamber Ensemble's composer-in-residence, Joseph Kern, listens to a rehearsal of the new symphony he has written.

"I remember the first concert I played it was a good crowd. But now, for the past few concerts, it’s always a full house, and it’s amazing. That’s really fun and all of the audience members are very proud of them ensemble, it’s like their ensemble, too," he says.

"These musicians are really invested in a very self-less way," Lewis says. "For me that’s the most important part of being a musician: the selfless nature of it, the lack of individual egos. I think happy people play better."

For the final concert of their season this weekend, they’ll play Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, along with a new symphony by their own composer-in-residence, Joseph Kern. And, in that spirit of keeping people happy, the concerts are free.

The Midwest Chamber Ensemble, 7:30 p.m. May 3, at Lutheran Church of the Resurrection, 9100 Mission Road, Prairie Village, Kansas, 66206. A pre-concert talk is at 6:45 p.m.

A free press is among our country’s founding principles and most precious resources. As director of content-journalism at KCUR, I want everyone in our part of America to know we see them and we’re listening. I work to make sure the stories we tell and the conversations we convene reflect our complex realities, informing and inspiring all of us to meet the profound challenges of our time. Email me at cj@kcur.org.
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