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Without Live Performances, The Kansas City Symphony Counts Down To Christmas With Musical Advent Calendar

Musicians Advent Nutcracker.png
courtesy: David Sullivan/Kansas City Symphony
In December, Kansas City Symphony musicians are usually playing in the pit during performances of Kansas City Ballet's "The Nutcracker." This year, they're offering a musical Advent calendar, including music from the show.

The coronavirus has Kansas City Symphony musicians mostly playing their instruments at home these days — and creating music for online audiences.

In a normal year, December would be the craziest month for the musicians of the Kansas City Symphony.

The orchestra performs in its own concerts at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, including Handel's "Messiah," as well as in the Kansas City Ballet’s "The Nutcracker."

But the coronavirus pandemic has sent Kansas City-area residents home for much of the season. In lieu of live performances, the symphony is counting down to Christmas with a new take on a nearly 200-year-old tradition — the Advent calendar.

Looking ahead to the prospect of no holiday shows, associate principal horn David Sullivan and music librarian Fabrice Curtis started talking about other possibilities back in October.

“We’ve been playing outdoor concerts all throughout the community, but in December, that’s not really an option,” says Curtis. “So we started to brainstorm on how can we bring music to people, even though we're not going to be playing in the [Helzberg] hall.”

The idea: release one song a day online through December 25.

“Part of what I love about Advent calendars is that there are surprises,” says Sullivan, “you open it up and you don’t know what you’re going to get.”

Musicians Advent Carol of the Bells.png
courtesy: David Sullivan/Kansas City Symphony
A screenshot of Kansas City Symphony musicians performing "Carol of the Bells" for the musical Advent calendar.

The idea was a hit.

"They reached out to all the musicians and everybody just jumped on board," says assistant principal second violinist Kristin Velicer.

She adds, "This musical Advent calendar is really a gift.”

The Advent calendar features a range of ensembles — from a solo harp performance of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” to duos, trios, and even larger groups featuring different members of the orchestra.

“So each section gets its own little moment in the sun to do its thing,” says Curtis.

For the project, they selected a variety of holiday carols and songs in the public domain, including "Rock of Ages" to mark the first night of Hanukkah.

“Five of the 25 pieces were already composed for orchestra, so it was just a matter of preparing the parts for those,” Sullivan said. “The other 20 are all original arrangements done by the musicians.”

This provides “a little window,” says Curtis, into how a musician performs at home, whether it’s inside an office, in a living room, or next to a Christmas tree.

Musicians Advent Jingle Bells.png
courtesy: David Sullivan/Kansas City Symphony
A screenshot of Kansas City Symphony musicians performing "Jingle Bells."

“I recorded ‘Jingle Bells.’ It is the fastest, craziest arrangement of 'Jingle Bells' I've ever done, but that's okay,” describes Kristin Velicer, with a laugh. She performs in five of the videos, including the overture to Handel’s “Messiah” and Corelli’s “Christmas Concerto.”

Velicer says there’s been a steep learning curve during the pandemic and they’ve all been learning new skills — from microphones to camera work to editing.

“It's been a mind shift, not just for us, but for every musician around the country,” she says. “It's been a real shift in how to get the music out and how to share it. And what's the best way to do it.”

But, Velicer says, until the musicians return to the Kauffman Center, they’ll continue to find ways to connect with audiences.

“We're all coming together,” she says, “finding unusual and non-traditional ways to keep the music very much alive in our community.”

Follow the Musicians of the Kansas City Symphony's musical Advent calendar on YouTube, Instagram, or the symphony's website.

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