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After Helzberg Sell-Out, Kansas City Civic Orchestra Eager For 'Rolls Royce' Of Concert Halls

Kansas City Civic Orchestra
The Kansas City Civic Orchestra, a mix of professional and amateur musicians, is heading into its 60th year.

When the Kansas City Civic Orchestra decided to call its first performance in Helzberg Hall – Kansas City’s premiere concert hall – its "Surround Sound" concert, they didn’t realize they would end up literally surrounded.

In keeping with Civic's 59-year mission, the tickets were free. But even so, the organization had not anticipated the fervor that ensued.

Tickets for the May 11 performance went live April 3 and sold out within a week. (The last person to sell out the hall was internationally renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma.)

"Ridiculous! Ridiculous that it went so fast. I was blown away," says Christopher Kelts, the orchestra’s music director.

They hadn’t planned on using seats in the Grand Tier or the Choral Loft.

"Within three days,” Kelts says, “we had to open those up."

The orchestra has played venues all over the region. But the 1,600-seat hall in the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts is something else.

The Kansas City Civic Orchestra includes a fine roster of community members, a mix of professional and amateur musicians: teachers, attorneys, real estate agents, doctors, as well as familiar faces like local weatherman Bryan Busby.

"In my time with Civic, this would be the largest crowd," says Kelts.

Typically home of the Kansas City Symphony, the venue has also welcomed the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony, as well as international touring ensembles.

Credit Kansas City Civic Orchestra
Music director Chris Kelts conducts the Kansas City Civic Orchestra.

"You basically perform in a Rolls Royce," says Kelts. "I've had the pleasure of being on that stage making music a couple of times. The orchestra members have never done this and they are out of their minds excited."

Kansas City Civic Orchestra was founded in 1959 by Hugo Vianello, then assistant conductor of the Kansas City Philharmonic. He created the community-based ensemble to provide a high-level creative outlet for people with a love for playing orchestral music and the opportunity to share classics of the repertoire by providing concerts free of charge. The organization continues that mission today.

Vianello died on March 30, at the age of 92, having contributed vastly to the fine arts culture of Missouri in both Kansas City and Columbia.

Kelts, meanwhile, returned as music director at the beginning of this season. He had resigned at the end of 2105 after seven and a half years with the organization when he became the director of orchestral studies at Missouri State University in Springfield. But Civic's search for a new music director hit a snag, and Kelts says he was “happy to come back on board and help out." He'll be with the orchestra during its 60th anniversary season, too, just like he was for its 50th.

To prepare for the concert, Kelts has been traveling two and a half hours both ways every Tuesday for rehearsal.

"It sounds nuts, but actually it's a guaranteed five hours when I don't have to answer an email," he says.

Kelts opens the performance with Hector Berlioz' robust "Roman Carnival Overture."

He’s also included one of the repertoire's more stirring and well-known works, Tchaikovsky's Symphony no. 5.

"Everything about it is really approachable," he says, "and it's just a hell of a good time to play that piece."

The work offers both bombastic full ensemble moments and pensive solo features, a rousing mix of pomp and pastoral elements.

Completing the program's first half is the first movement of Felix Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, performed with Bethlehem Kelley, winner of Civic's fourth annual Young Artist Concerto Competition.

"Her musical phrasing … her technical skill put her on top. She's been well-trained," Kelts said of the 16-year-old soloist. "She has a really impressive talent and work ethic."

The Mendelssohn is part of the standard repertoire — every violinist learns it — but "she really sold it," says Kelts. This performance is Kelley's solo debut in Helzberg Hall.

During rehearsal, orchestra members asked Kelts what it is like to perform there.

"I said, 'Imagine the best concert hall in the world… It's like that.'"

He says he can’t wait for the musicians to play together on that stage.

"Hopefully they will just be in awe of their sound. That's my hope for them, that they will really be satisfied with their commitment to the orchestra," he says.

"I told them at rehearsal, 'I don't want a flawless performance. I want an emotional performance.’ Everyone will remember an emotional performance first."

Kansas City Civic Orchestra performs "Surround Sound in Helzberg Hall," 3 p.m. Sunday, May 6, at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, 1601 Broadway Blvd, Kansas City, Missouri 64108; 816-994-7200.

KCUR contributor Libby Hanssen writes the culture blog Proust Eats A Sandwich. Follow her on Twitter, @libbyhanssen.

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen is a freelance writer in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. Learn more at Proust Eats a Sandwich.
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