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Arts & Life

Here's Why Kansas City Symphony's Michael Stern Is Staying — And Leaving

Todd Rosenberg
Kansas City Symphony
This season marks music director Michael Stern's 15th as music director. He'll be stepping down after the 2022-2023 season.

Kansas City Symphony music director Michael Stern is leaving but not until 2023. 

"It's the right decision at the right time," said Stern. "And the way that we're doing it I think is, in my opinion, a model of how such things should happen."

On Monday, the Symphony announced renewing Stern's contract through the 2022-2023 season. But then, he'll step down and take on a new role as music director laureate. 

"Because if you truly love an organization, a collection of musicians, your colleagues and friends in the community, and the orchestra where you've worked for 15 years, which I absolutely do, then you want absolutely to be part of the best possible next chapter," said Stern.

The Symphony was once described as a "regional so-so orchestra," but Stern's tenure, which began as music director designate in 2004, and as music director in the 2005-2006 season, boosted the orchestra's national reputation.

In September 2011, Stern conducted the first concerts in the Symphony's new venue at Helzberg Hall in the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. And he's appointed 34 full-time musicians, more than 40 percent of the current orchestra roster. 

"I know that we've laid a foundation," said Stern, "where the future is absolutely limitless."

courtesy Kansas City Symphony

Financial growth has also been a feature of Stern's tenure. According to the Symphony, ticket sales and the subscriber base remain strong; the classical series concerts average 94 percent sold capacity, with the highest-ever ticket revenues for the series in the 2018-2019 season. 

Executive director Danny Beckley, who officially started in July when Frank Byrne retired, says Stern's contract extension allows the organization to continue the momentum.

"And I think that between the exciting projects that we're doing — that have not been announced yet, around performance, commissioning new works, broadcast, recording," said Beckley, "that there is so much that the orchestra is going to do with Michael."

Stern is also the founding music director of IRIS Orchestra in Germantown, Tennessee, and guest conducts for orchestras around the United States, as well as in Europe and Asia. His wife and two daughters, in 5th and 8th grades, live in Connecticut.

"So my daughters are growing up, and the work with the orchestra continues," said Stern. "And it just seems like the right moment to celebrate the present, make incredibly vigorous plans for the future, and to watch the orchestra shine into the next chapter."

As he views it, Stern says, he has a "responsibility in making (the transition) stable, and seamless, and energetic." During the 2021-2022 season, music director candidates will guest conduct. 

"As chair I will oversee the search, and our audiences will be included in that process," said board chair Patrick McCown in a release. 

At the end of the 2022-23 season, Stern will continue with the Symphony as music director laureate. 

"And this is to reflect Michael's ongoing connection to the Symphony even after his tenure is complete," said Beckley. "And I think that's really important." 

He adds, "I think that that shows respect to him, but it also shows the community that he has helped lead something here that has developed such deep roots that we can build something remarkable on top of that."

And, for now, Stern said, rather than looking ahead to future possibilities, he's focusing on this season and his next few with the Kansas City Symphony.

"I will plan my future, I will, I will. Where that is exactly going, I don't know,"  Stern said. "But there's four years still here of work."

Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter at @lauraspencer

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