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From Kansas City to Carnegie Hall: These local ensembles are headed to the world's most famous stage

The view from the stage of Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall.
Carnegie Hall
The view from the stage of Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall.

Carnegie Hall is a name that is world-renowned and for a few Kansas City ensembles, they have the rare opportunity to step onto that stage themselves. Learn about the groups that will be headed to New York to perform there this upcoming season.

This story was first published in Classical KC's "Take Note" newsletter. You can sign up to receive stories like this in your inbox the first Wednesday of every month.

Though Kansas City’s skyline and arts community boasts the iconic Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, just the name of another hall conjures an element of international prestige: Carnegie Hall.

"It's a mythic venue whose status lives in everyone's imaginations," said guitarist Beau Bledsoe, founder and artistic director of Kansas City’s Ensemble Ibérica.

Through the years, plenty of artists from Kansas City have made their way to New York City’s venerated Carnegie Hall. Whether student or professional, it’s a highlight for any musician’s career.

“To be able to perform in an acoustically perfect venue for singing is a dream come true,” said Beth Richey-Sullivan, choral conductor at Blue Valley Northwest High School.

Carnegie Hall opened in 1891, part of the legacy of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, who also donated money to build libraries in rural communities in addition to other philanthropic projects.

The legacy of its stages included Pyotr Tchaikovsky, who performed at the hall’s opening concert, as well as Kansas City’s own Behzod Abduraimov, who debuted there in 2015 and has given multiple performances in the space.

Gustav Mahler first conducted in the hall in 1908 and would perform there another 72 times, primarily with the New York Philharmonic. Marian Anderson made her debut there in 1920. Benny Goodman presented the first integrated jazz orchestra there in 1938. Billie Holiday — ”the best and most honest jazz singer alive” — performed there in 1956. And even the Beatles played there in 1964, though the program mistakenly listed a “John McCartney."

But in the late 1950s, the hall was scheduled for the wrecking ball. A grassroots effort to save the hall took off, spearheaded by violinist Isaac Stern and his wife Vera, parents of Kansas City Symphony’s music director Michael Stern. The hall was preserved and continues to welcome thousands of performers and audience members each year.

Carnegie Hall includes three performing spaces: the iconic white-walled, red-upholstered Stern Auditorium concert hall; the modern Zankel Hall; and Weill Recital Hall, a cream, gold, and blue “jewel box” of a performance space with stunning chandeliers.

Last year, the Chamber Choir from the Paseo Academy of Fine and Performing Arts, led by Willie Thorton, made headlines with their once-in-a-lifetime appearance at the famed hall, performing with choirs from around the country in Stern Auditorium.

Over the summer, musicians from Kansas City Kansas Community College performed composer Justin Binek’s “Missa Lucis” with singers from around the country.

“Until we were actually in Carnegie Hall, there was a part of me that didn’t think it was actually going to happen — that someone was going to call us at some point and say: ‘I’m sorry we didn’t mean Carnegie Hall, we meant the Carnegie Library in Poughkeepsie,’” said Binek. “It was a very surreal experience to see my name on a Carnegie poster marquee, to see my program notes in a Carnegie Playbill, and especially to walk onto that stage.”

The performance was presented by Mid-America Productions. KCKCC professor John Stafford II conducted, with students and alumni from KCKCC in the choir. Kansas City jazz saxophonist Brett Jackson, guitarist Rod Fleeman, bassist James Albright, and drummer Brian Steever, joined soloists Peter Eldridge and Lauren Kinhan, of the New York Voices. The performance received a standing ovation.

“I was so appreciative of the opportunity to be on that stage with some of the finest musicians in KC,” Binek said. It was a “really, really special feeling.”

musicians from Kansas City Kansas Community College perform a piece by Justin Binek at Carnegie Hall.
Courtesy of Justin Binek
Students and alumni of Kansas City Kansas Community College, with Kansas City jazz musicians perform a piece by Justin Binek at Carnegie Hall, conducted by John Stafford II.

Performing at Carnegie Hall is also a way to introduce musicians to the world stage.

The Kansas City Symphony Chorus, conducted by Arnold Epley, performed there in 2008. Classical KC’s own Sascha Groschang, co-host of Sound Currents, made her debut in Weill Hall in 2009. Pianist Melody Lee Stroth performed Mark Hayes “Magnificat” with a 250-voice choir in 2019. Composer Ingrid Stölzel’s “Unus Mundus” was performed in 2019 as part of the Composer’s Voice Series, featuring pianist Matthew McCright. Pianist Ilya Shmukler, a student at Park University’s International Center, made his debut in December 2022. (He was featured on Classical KC’s Local Feature).

This spring and summer, four Kansas City performing ensembles travel to New York City to make their debuts at Carnegie Hall.

Students from Blue Valley Northwest High School join choirs from around the country for a concert March 6. In committing to the trip and performance, each Blue Valley student promised to “bring the very best of themselves,” said choral conductor Beth Richey-Sullivan.

Along with singing in the full choir, they were invited to perform a solo set, conducted by Richey-Sullivan and accompanied by pianist Kurt Knecht. They’ll also perform music by Knetch, as well as Carlos Cordero, Jacob Narverud and Samu Vouk.

“It is incredibly important for students to travel outside of Johnson County … to know that there is an artistic scene outside their high school experience that is just waiting for them when they become adults,” said Richey-Sullivan. “I want them to experience that first hand, so they become a life-long creator and consumer of the arts.”

String quartet Opus 76 makes their Carnegie debut in Weill Recital Hall on March 23, performing Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartets op. 130 and op. 131.

The Youth Orchestra of KC's touring ensemble performs in Stern Auditorium for the Viennese Masters Invitationalon June 16.

Ensemble Ibérica performs at Carnegie Hall in May, part of the organization’s patron trip to New York City to celebrate their 10-year anniversary.

A group of musicians smiling for a portrait.
Dan White
John Currey, Fedra Cooper Barrera, Bruno Bessa, Ezgi Karakus, Beau Bledsoe, and Christine Grossman of Ensemble Iberica.

They were invited to perform on the series “Amazonas” by guitarist and Ibérica collaborator Nilko Andreas.

“Ensemble Ibérica has robust international ties, but we rarely tour in the U.S.,” said Bledsoe. “Carnegie represents excellence and performing there is an acknowledgement of the artistry and dedication we’ve all put into the ensemble.”

Performing in Carnegie Hall puts a musician in rarified company. While a handful of musicians will perform there multiple times, for most, it’s an opportunity that may occur only once.

In bringing the best of themselves to Carnegie's national audience, these ensembles demonstrate the range of skill and talent in Kansas City.

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.