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Michael Stern says farewell to Kansas City Symphony: 'The next chapter is going to be brilliant'

Michael Stern at the Classical KC studios.
Carlos Moreno
Classical KC
Michael Stern at the Classical KC studios in 2024.

After 19 seasons, Michael Stern is stepping down as music director of the Kansas City Symphony, with Matthias Pintscher taking over at the start of the next season. Classical KC spoke with the outgoing maestro and his longtime friend Yo-Yo Ma about Stern's time at the helm and what’s ahead for the orchestra.

After a 19-year run, Michael Stern is departing his post as music director of the Kansas City Symphony following a weekend of concerts concluding on June 23.

And though Stern says he won’t be spending as much time in Kansas City anymore, it will always maintain a place in his heart.

“It’s been one of my homes, it has been the focus of so much musical effort and passion, but mostly I've had the incredible privilege of surrounding myself with people who want to do something extraordinary,” Stern says. “First and foremost the musicians of the orchestra, the staff, an extraordinary board — and an environment for culture and the arts and music that really is exceptional here in Kansas City.”

For his valedictory appearance as the orchestra’s conductor, Stern has chosen three works that he especially holds dear: Felix Mendelssohn’s “Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Samuel Barber’s Symphony No. 1 and Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2.

Stern became music director of the Kansas City Symphony in 2005. The orchestra’s website praises him for having overseen “a remarkable artistic ascent, original programming, organizational development, stability and extraordinary growth.” For the last four years, Stern has been featured every week on Classical KC as the co-host of a two-hour program showcasing Kansas City Symphony performances over the last two decades.

During his tenure, Stern has also led the orchestra in a series of innovative recordings for the Reference Recordings label. Coming out soon is a recording of orchestral arrangements of Brahms chamber works by Arnold Schoenberg, Bright Sheng and Kansas City native son Virgil Thomson.

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Kansas City Symphony music director Michael Stern take a bow in Helzberg Hall
Todd Rosenberg
Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Kansas City Symphony Music Director Michael Stern take a bow in Helzberg Hall.

One of the hallmarks of Stern’s tenure has been his championing of contemporary composers. The orchestra has commissioned or co-commissioned pieces by a wide range of living composers, from Chen Yi and Errollyn Wallen to Angel Lam and Joel Thompson. Thompson’s elegy for cello and orchestra, titled “Breathe Burn,” will be featured on another soon-to-be-released recording with Yo-Yo Ma as soloist.

“In this case, it’s about some form of keeping the candle burning for people’s voices,” says Ma, who has known Stern since they were children.

“Michael is one of the most thoughtful musicians. He thinks so deeply about how to program music and he went through many iterations,” Ma says. "He’s thought about what can I bring to a community that would help enrich the inner lives of the people in a place that he loves so much that’s become his home.”

Stern says he’s confident the Kansas City Symphony will be in excellent hands with his designated successor, whose appointment was announced more than a year ago.

“Mattias Pincher is a colleague, he's a friend, but he's also a musician of enormous impact and somebody I admire very much,” he says.

“I know that he’s going to be full of ideas and possibilities for the orchestra and for music in the community,” Stern says, “and that makes me happy because that’s what we’re trying to do.”

The German-born Pintscher, whose five-year term begins in September, has served as music director of a new group in Paris, the Ensemble Intercontemporain, and the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra in Switzerland. He’s also a notable composer who has written for orchestra, chamber ensembles, piano and voice. Pintscher is a member of the composition faculty at Juilliard.

Conductor and composer Matthias Pintscher will take over as the Kansas City Symphony's Music Director in the fall of 2024
Kansas City Symphony
Conductor and composer Matthias Pintscher will take over as the Kansas City Symphony's music director in September.

Stern leaves with high hopes that the orchestra will maintain the upward trajectory it has been on for the last several decades, one in which he played an indispensable role.

“When you are a famous player and you get a great instrument — you get a Stradivarius or a Guarneri — you don't own that instrument,” Stern says. “If you're lucky to touch it, you're sort of taking care of it until the next person will come and pick it up.”

“You do what you love and then you hope that the next chapter brings even more success. And I think that's exactly what's going to happen here in Kansas City,” Stern says. “The musicians of the Kansas City Symphony are exceptional and, because of them, I have every expectation that music is going to be alive and well in Kansas City for a very long time to come. And I'm honored to have played a part in that.”

The Kansas City Symphony will host Stern's Farewell with Sibelius and Barber at 8 p.m. on Friday, June 21, and Saturday, June 22, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, June 23, in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, 1601 Broadway Blvd., Kansas City, Missouri 64108. Ticketing and information are at KCSymphony.org.

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
Sam Wisman is a Senior Producer for 91.9 Classical KC and a backup announcer for KCUR 89.3. Email him at samwisman@classicalkc.org.
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