Kansas City Symphony Chats with Organist Paul Jacobs

Photo of Paul Jacobs
Paul Jacobs

Paul Jacobs is helping the King of Instruments retake its rightful place in classical music. The Kansas City Symphony is presenting “Mozart’s Requiem,” featuring Guilmant’s Symphony No. 1 with Paul Jacobs at the console of the Julia Irene Kauffman Casavant Organ on Oct. 20-23  in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets from $30. Call the Box Office at (816) 471-0400 or select your seat here. Best availability is on Thursday, October 20.

Tell us about yourself. When did you start playing organ? When did you know you wanted to be a professional musician?
I began with the piano at age 5, but didn’t start organ lessons until I was 12 years old, a situation that isn’t uncommon, as the organ is considered an unusual instrument. Things went rather quickly, though, after that; I had my first professional music job at 15, when I was appointed head organist of the church in my hometown of Washington, Pennsylvania, with a congregation of 3500 families. Getting to play the organ so regularly for many people brought me a sense of accomplishment, and I sensed early on that the joy of the organ literature and of playing for others would be my life’s work.

You’ll be performing Alexandre Guilmant’s Organ Symphony No. 1 with the Kansas City Symphony for the opening weekend of our Classical Series. What do you love about the work? What do you want audiences to know about the piece?
I’m looking forward to bringing the Guilmant Organ Symphony to the Kansas City audience.  This might be the first organ symphony a number of audience members are hearing live, and it happens to be a grand, popular work; Alexander Guilmant was a prolific composer and organist, whose many accomplishments included giving 40 recitals in 1904 on the
largest organ in the world, the St. Louis Exposition Organ, now preserved as part of the Wanamaker Organ in Philadelphia.

How does the Julia Irene Kauffman Casavant Organ compare to other organs you play? What is the process for becoming acquainted with an instrument when you travel?
The Kauffman’s Casavant Organ is a magnificent instrument. It’s a pleasure to play in this great hall, especially, since the room in which an organ is housed acts as the ‘resonator’ for the instrument. This instrument possesses a fine mechanical action, which offers quite
a bit of nuanced control over the sound emanating from each organ pipe. The process for becoming acquainted with an organ is much more complex than most people realize. I spend many hours adjusting the registration of the organ, learning the sound, making sure I can
master the sound I’m creating.

Who are your top three favorite composers and why?
It’s impossible to choose. This varies from day to day, depending upon many factors.  Of course, I share the sentiment of the German Romantic composer Max Reger, who said, “Bach is the Alpha and Omega of music.”

What do you like to do in your free time?
I don’t get a lot of free time between practicing, performing, and teaching at Juilliard, but when I do have some time, I love to go outside and explore nature. I try to take long walks, during which time I think about music and sometimes locate a quiet spot to read. Living in New York City, I think it’s important to get away every once in a while, even if it’s just to spend an hour in Central Park or to visit one of the many museums.

Is there anything you’re looking forward to doing while you’re in Kansas City outside of the concert hall?
I’ll spend a lot of my time in Kansas City in the concert hall working with the organ, but I’m hoping to visit the Nelson-Atkins Museum and a few others sites. Plus, I look forward to enjoying a nice steak dinner, and maybe some tasty barbecue.

What are other highlights of your 16/17 season?
I just gave a recital at Lincoln Center’s Paul Hall, and performed in the season opener of the Cleveland Orchestra. I also have performances with the LA Phil, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Montreal Symphony and the Edmonton Symphony. I’ll also join the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center for a performance in Alice Tully Hall. Later in the season, I’ll return to the Oregon Bach Festival to perform and to direct the Organ Institute.

Where are you headed next after Kansas City?
I’m headed back to New York to prepare for upcoming performances with the Philadelphia Orchestra, where I’ll have the unusual honor of playing in all three works they’re presenting — the highly virtuosic Toccata Festiva by Samuel Barber, the world premiere of an organ concerto by Christopher Rouse, and, after intermission, the organ work that is probably best known to audiences: Saint-Saëns’ “Organ” Symphony, which I was scheduled to perform with the Orchestra last February with Maestro James Levine of the Met, but unfortunately the
performance was cancelled. Now it has been rescheduled, and the orchestra’s Music Director, Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin will be conducting.

Don’t miss our next classical concert, “Mozart’s Requiem,” featuring Guilmant’s Symphony No. 1 with Paul Jacobs  at the console of the Julia Irene Kauffman Casavant Organ on  Oct. 20-23 in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets from $30. Call the Box Office at (816) 471-0400 or select your seat here. Best availability is on Thursday, October 20.

Kansas City Symphony Chats with Organist Dorothy Papadakos

Dorothy Papadakos
Dorothy Papadakos

Dorothy Papdakos is known for her silent film programs. The Kansas City Symphony is presenting the 1929 silent film classic “Phantom of the Opera” starring Lon Chaney. Papadakos will improvise at the console of the Julia Irene Kauffman Casavant Organ on Thursday, Oct. 27 at 7 p.m. while the film is shown giant screen in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets from $25. Select your seat here or call the Box Office at (816) 471-0400.

Tell us about yourself. When did you start performing the organ for silent film classics?
I learned how to improvise for silent films while I was Cathedral Organist at NYC’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine from the legendary theater organist Lee Erwin who played silent films there every Halloween. I sat up at the organ watching him, taking it all in at the master’s feet. By then, Lee was in his 90s! One year he didn’t feel well and at the last minute they threw me on! I had two days to compose musical cues for a double feature of “Phantom of the Opera” in front of 3,500 people. I was terrified — my improvisations were “liturgical,” and I’d never improvised in the harmonic language of a silent film. But I dove in … Lee coached me over the phone on how to write good musical cues for my characters … 30 minutes into the first performance something inside me broke free, and I’d never felt freer in my improvising or at the organ. It’s an incredible feeling I still get in every silent film performance. Each show is utterly new and different. I never get bored!

How do you prepare? Do you watch the film many times?
Improv is best when it’s fresh and I’m on the edge of my seat, so I rarely preview a film once I’ve learned it. When we do screen check, I get to see some scenes, but I prefer seeing it fresh each time. I do study the scene breakdown and cue sheet on the plane flying to a gig, but my biggest preparation is registering a venue’s organ — choosing sound combinations to match the scenes and setting my pistons (the organ’s computer memory).

How does the Julia Irene Kauffman Casavant Organ compare to other organs you play? What is the process for becoming acquainted with an instrument when you travel?
Helzberg Hall’s magnificent 5,548 pipe Julia Irene Kauffman Casavant Organ is a genuine masterpiece! I LOVE playing this instrument because it goes wherever I need it to musically in any moment of a film — from loud and spooky to sparkling and charming — it has lots of what we organists call “toys and heavy artillery” on board! Getting acquainted occurs over hours of listening to each stop and combining sounds. Every film is different, so each year the sound combinations are different.

What part of “Phantom of the Opera” is your favorite and why?
I love the scenes where Carlotta brings down the chandelier, when the Phantom takes Christine on his gondola into his lair, the Masked Ball and when the inspector and Raoul search for Christine in the dungeons under the Opera House and get trapped. Universal’s 1929 re-issue of the 1925 original feature was brilliantly edited by the film’s star, Lon Chaney, down to 92 minutes and the action never stops. These scenes in particular are emotionally charged and the audience and I are right in there with the characters. I think this is why this film is so popular — together we all go on an exciting emotional ride of humor, suspense and romance with a profound subtext about “the outsider cast from society” are what makes this film so enduring and such a satisfying experience.

Since this film is presenting near Halloween, do you have any Halloween traditions? What do you find spooky?
My annual Halloween Horror Tour has become my Halloween tradition! In fact, I’ve become a Halloween tradition in many places … Dorothy coming to town with her costumes and creepy friends Nosferatu, the Phantom, Quasimodo, Dr. Jekyll & Mr Hyde. For me, spooky is a delayed or cancelled flight on tour! I love graveyards, full moons and pumpkins … though I’m pretty sure I never want to run into Nosferatu. THAT’S scaaaary.

What do you like to do in your spare time?
This Christmas my new Young Adult (11-14) sci-fi adventure book “The Kingdom of Winter” is being released! It’s book No. 1 of the “Kingdoms of the Seasons” quartet, and it’s already getting lots of great attention. It’s nature’s four seasons like you’ve never experienced them! Also in development, I have a terrific new TV drama series, “The Golden Door,” about Ellis Island’s incredible team who managed the largest migration in human history of 12 million immigrants. And, on top of it all, my fun musical “Bacchus” is also in development!

If you have any free moments while visiting Kansas City, is there anything particular you plan to do outside of the concert hall?
I have dear friends who live in the area, and we always get together for a lovely meal. I love Kansas City’s jazz history since jazz is how I learned to play the piano and improvise. Maybe I can catch a set somewhere!

After KC, where are you headed next? What are other highlights for your 16/17 season?
From here I go to St. John’s Cathedral in Denver to play “Nosferatu,” then to Grace Cathedral in San Francisco for a double feature of “Nosferatu” (two in one night!). Both venues have spectacular, huge organs and acoustics, much like Helzberg Hall, so I feel very lucky to get to perform in all these wondrous buildings. Two really special treats coming up for me are performing “Phantom of the Opera” in Singapore in 2017 and a tour of “Phantom of the Opera” in Japan (TBD), which means translating the film for the first time ever into Japanese! Won’t that be cool to see!

Anything else you’d like to add?
Thank you so much for this wonderful opportunity to perform “Phantom of the Opera” in Helzberg Hall! I can’t wait to be with you all again and see your costumes — as I discovered the last two seasons with “Nosferatu” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Kansas City loves their horror movies and ROCKS!

Don’t miss “Phantom of the Opera” with Dorothy Papadakos at the console of the Julia Irene Kauffman Casavant Organ on Thursday, Oct. 27 at 7 p.m. while the film is shown giant screen in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets from $25. Select your seat here or call the Box Office at (816) 471-0400.

Guest violinist Stefan Jackiw talks with the Kansas City Symphony

Stefan Jackiw
Stefan Jackiw

Guest violinist Stefan Jackiw will perform the Korngold Violin Concerto on Opening Weekend (Sept 30-Oct. 2) with the Kansas City Symphony.

Tell us about the Korngold Concerto you will be playing with the Symphony.
Korngold was most well-known as a film composer. This violin concerto, although not film music, is filled with cinematic drama and sweep, heart-on-your-sleeve romance, and kinetic energy. I particularly love the unabashed expressiveness of the first and second movements. The slow movement gets me right in the feels every time.

How do you feel about returning to perform with the Kansas City Symphony? What are looking forward to?
I love playing with the Kansas City Symphony! The orchestra sounds so great and is so supportive to work with. I have some friends from school days in the orchestra, so it’s always nice to reconnect with them. Also, you guys seriously have one of the most gorgeous halls in the world. It’s such a treat to play there. And Michael Stern strikes a tone in rehearsal that is both serious and thoughtful but also at times playfully irreverent, which somehow brings us all closer together. Also, KC BBQ…

Have you recorded anything lately?
I just finished recording the complete sonatas of Charles Ives with one of my favorite musicians, pianist Jeremy Denk. Ives’ music has a reputation of being thorny, and while that’s true, at the core his music is about nostalgia, memory, and longing for the past, all very Romantic themes. I love his music deeply and feel so fortunate to have made this recording.

What are your sources of motivation and inspiration?
So many. Composers and their lives. Who was Brahms? What was Beethoven’s life like? What made Mozart tick? Also other musicians I get to work with. Books I’ve read, films, friends.

What do you like to do in your free time?
Read, watch great movies, cook, watch terrible movies, Netflix, running, chill with friends.

What are some highlights for the 2016-17 season for you? Where are you headed to next?
Immediately after KC, I’m headed to Amsterdam to perform at the Concertgebouw, which is another one of the world’s great halls with a great history and tradition behind it. I love playing there, and I love the city. After the two halls in KC and Amsterdam, I’m going to be so spoiled…

Stefan Jackiw performs with the Kansas City Symphony
Guest Violinist Stefan Jackiw will perform Korngold’s Violin Concerto with the Kansas City Symphony.

Kansas City Symphony’s Opening Weekend: Tchaikovsky’s Fourth also features Patrick Harlan’s Rapture and Stefan Jackiw as soloist for the Korngold Violin Concerto. Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased through online or by calling the Symphony Box Office at (816) 471-0400.

Get to Know Guest Artist Brody Dolyniuk

Brody Dolyniuk
Brody Dolyniuk

Guest artist Brody Dolyniuk joins the Kansas City Symphony to present David Bowie: A Musical Odyssey with the Kansas City Symphony on Saturday, September 24 at 8 p.m. in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets start at $40. To order, call the Symphony Box Office at (816) 471-0400 or select seats online.

You’ve been called a multi-instrumentalist — what instruments do you play?
I started on piano, then guitar, drums, bass and harmonica. I’ve also dabbled on the mandolin a bit. I’m strictly self-taught by ear. To this day, I still can’t read sheet music. I’ve also done some arranging for orchestras, which is pretty unorthodox for someone who doesn’t read music. And oh yeah … I sing sometimes.🙂

How would you describe this concert? What makes it special?
It’s a hybrid rock concert/symphonic performance. At the core is a great band that faithfully performs Bowie’s catalog, but Brent Havens has written great arrangements for symphony that sometimes underscore what the band is playing, and other times they become the dominant element. Of course, Bowie’s music lends itself well to this pairing because they’re such well-written songs in the first place.

Do you have a favorite Bowie song?
There are so many to choose from. “Space Oddity” is sort of an obvious choice, but the day David Bowie passed, I stayed up until the wee hours of the next morning listening to his catalog and rediscovered “Life On Mars,” and suggested it for the show. Thankfully, we’ve not only included it, but we’ve made it our closer. It’s a perfect choice for the concert. There are a few other songs we don’t do that I love, like “Jean Genie,” “John I’m Only Dancing,” “The Man Who Sold The World,” etc., but really there’s not a single song in the show that isn’t great or highly recognizable. The man wrote a lot of very good songs!

With Bowie’s passing earlier this year, how does that change a tribute concert like this?
I sense that people are still reeling from the loss a bit, and there’s a notable amount of emotion. There are many die-hard Bowie fans out there whose lives were impacted or changed by the man, and this show has to be a balance of musicality, respect and also good-natured fun. I’m not trying to be David Bowie up there, I just try to make it a celebration of his life in my own way, from one fan to another. With all the shows, I do my best of singing in the vein of the original artist without it coming off like an impersonation.

Why is this a can’t-miss concert?
First and foremost, you have a very talented, major orchestra right here in your city, and everyone should take part in that culture. It’s a great family bonding event in an age when it’s so easy to get distracted with gadgets and TV. Furthermore, this is great, timeless music… I feel it has the staying power of the classical composers (classical purists, don’t hate me), and quite honestly, whether you’re a fan of rock, pop or classical music, I recommend seeing the show as it’s a different twist that brings different genres together. Anything that brings people from different cultures together is a good thing, in my book.

Is this your first time to Kansas City? What are you looking forward to with this trip?
Actually I was born in Wichita, Kan., but moved away as a baby (I took my parents with me). And when I first started playing music professionally, one of my first gigs was playing in the dueling piano bar/restaurant inside the Kansas City Station riverboat casino. That was back in ’97, so it’s my first time back since then. Kinda nice how things turned out.

Anything else you’d like to add?
Just that I’m looking forward to sharing in this great musical experience with the Kansas City Symphony … and meeting some friendly Kansas Citians🙂

Tickets for David Bowie: A Musical Odyssey with the Kansas City Symphony start at $40 and can be purchased through online or by calling the Symphony Box Office at (816) 471-0400.

Get to Know Five for Fighting (Singer-Songwriter John Ondrasik)

Five for Fighting (John Ondrasik) performs with the Kansas City Symphony on Thursday, June 9.
Five for Fighting (John Ondrasik)

Editor’s note: John Ondrasik, also known as Five for Fighting, performs with the Kansas City Symphony on Thursday, June 9 in a special, one-night-only concert. To secure your seats, call the Symphony Box Office at (816) 471-0400 or select seats online. 

Welcome to Kansas City! What are you looking forward to most for your performance with the Kansas City Symphony?
Performing with a symphony allows me to add a new dimension to the popular songs as well as pull songs from my catalogue that I would not perform in a typical band show. I have been blessed to work with some world-class composers during my career and the opportunity to share their creations with fans, old and new, is exciting.

How many different orchestras have you performed with, and how does this setting differ/compare to one of your non-orchestral concerts?
I have performed with more than a dozen orchestras and look forward to building out this part of my career. Frankly, though my audience (and I) enjoyed the rock clubs and festival shows, to be able to sit down and interpret these songs with world-class orchestra’s fills me with the joy I experienced in my first national tour. The medium also allows me to provide a more intimate experience and talk about the inspirations for certain songs and the stories behind the music.

Which of your songs do you consider the most fun to play in this kind of setting? And why?
The songs with the amazing arrangements by Brazilian George Del Barrio have to be at the top of the list. I have to be careful during “Two Lights,” “Devil in The Wishing Well,” and “Nobody” as it’s easy to get lost in George’s orchestrations. Of course, singing “Superman” and “100 Years” with an orchestra behind you is rather awesome as well…

Could you tell us about where the name “Five for Fighting” came from?
Early in my career my record label came to me and said that the male singer-songwriter was dead, that nobody could pronounce “Ondrasik” (true), and I needed to come up with a pseudonym band name. I had just come from a L.A. Kings hockey game so I blurted out, “How about Five for Fighting?” (The reference comes from a 5-minute penalty for fighting in hockey) To my shock, they loved the name, and though there aren’t five band members, and my boxing skills are rather limited, 15 years later … here we are.🙂

Where are you off to after Kansas City?
I am doing a tour with quartet directly after this KC gig. The response to the symphony shows has inspired me to take a smaller version to other markets across the country that may not have local orchestras … hence Five for Fighting with Quartet. After that, I’m off to New York to work on a Broadway musical or two… Stay tuned!

What advice would you give to aspiring singers and songwriters?
Listen to great songwriters, write hundreds of songs, record your songs in simple formats so you can listen back, and most importantly Play Live. Your audience will be your greatest teacher.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
Congrats on your Royals! As a huge sports fan I was so pleased to see you all get your ring. No fan base deserves it more! Repeat???

Singer-songwriter John Ondrasik, best known by his stage name Five for Fighting, joins your Kansas City Symphony for one very special evening of inspired hits on Thursday, June 9 at 8 p.m. in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Kansas City, Mo.. Enjoy favorites like “Superman (It’s Not Easy),” “The Riddle,” “Chances” and “100 Years” performed with stunning live orchestral arrangements. Tickets start at $30. To purchase, call the Symphony Box Office at (816) 471-0400 or select seats online.

Get to Know Guest Conductor/Pianist Jeffrey Kahane

Jeffrey Kahane
Jeffrey Kahane

Editor’s note: Maestro Jeffrey Kahane conducts the Kansas City Symphony for the June 3-5 Classical Series concerts and is the featured soloist for Ravel’s jazzy Piano Concerto in G Major. To secure your seats, call the Symphony Box Office at (816) 471-0400 or select seats online. 

Welcome back to Kansas City! Is there anything you hope to do during your visit that you didn’t get a chance to do last time? 

Well, the only problem with a program like this, where I am playing a difficult concerto as well as conducting the entire program, is that I don’t have any time to do anything much other than practice, rehearse, eat and sleep! I’d love to do some sight-seeing in KC, but I’m afraid that will have to wait for another visit.

What are you most looking forward in these upcoming Kansas City Symphony concerts?

Pretty much everything. I had such a great time with the orchestra last time playing Mozart and conducting Rachmaninoff, and this time it will be a joy to play one of my absolute favorite works, the G major Ravel Concerto, as well as conducting the delightful Symphony No. 88 of Haydn. I suppose I could say that it will be an extra-special treat to conduct to magnificent works which are all-too-little know to concert-goers, Dvořák’s thrilling late tone-poems “The Water Goblin” and “The Noon Witch.” These are pieces written at the end of Dvořák’s life, after he had returned from American to his homeland and after he had composed his most famous work, the so-called  “New World” Symphony. They show the composer at the peak of his imaginative powers, displaying his gift both for glorious melodies and ravishing orchestral colors, with the added element of gripping musical story-telling

Tell us about yourself; where did you study piano and conducting, and how long did it take you to master doing both at the same time?

I studied piano in Los Angeles where I grew up, as well as at the San Francisco Conservatory, at Juilliard, and in London. I never studied conducting formally, though I had wonderful guidance from a number of distinguished conductors and had the great education of observing great conductors in rehearsal from the time I was very young.

Conducting and playing at the same time is something that actually came fairly naturally to me, it was not something that took a long time to learn, but I suppose I have refined my approach to it quite a bit having done it now for more than 25 years.

What considerations must a musician account for while conducting and playing the piano simultaneously as opposed to individually?

One has to be able to concentrate on exactly the right thing at the right time. In other words, one has to know when the orchestra really needs a cue or some kind of particular guidance, and when they can simply rely on themselves.

Do you have a favorite part (or parts) in the Ravel piece? If so, which part(s) and why?

The opening of the slow movement of the concerto is one of the most moving and beautiful things in all of music. I have played it easily a hundred times in performance, and I never tire of it. It is also particularly moving when that great melody comes back and is played by the English horn — most players of that instrument will agree it is one of the half-dozen greatest solos for the instrument ever written, and I also relish that moment because I simply listen to and accompany the English horn there.

Why did you select Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 and the Dvořák works, The Water Goblin and The Noonday Witch, to also be on the concert program? Generally speaking, how do you like to approach programming for a Symphony concert? 

I don’t have a single approach to programming, it varies constantly. Sometimes I’ll program with a them in mind, and others, like the program I’m conducting this coming weekend with the Kansas City Symphony, I simply put together with the idea of balance and variety. These are just four works I love and I think make for a wonderfully varied and interesting evening.

What’s next on your performance agenda? 

I’ll be conducting and playing with the Milwaukee Symphony, in a program that also includes the Ravel Concerto, but also includes Copland’s Appalachian Spring, Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story,” and the original jazz band version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with the audience? 

I think this is going to be a special week for me, and I hope it is for my colleagues and the audience as well!

The Kansas City Symphony performs “Spring Fling: Ravel and Dvořák” June 3-5 in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Kansas City, Mo. On the program is Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major, Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 and The Water Goblin and The Noonday Witch by Dvorak. Tickets start at $25. To purchase, call the Symphony Box Office at (816) 471-0400 or select seats online.

Kansas City Connection Leshnoff’s Symphony No. 3

“An Attack: Crossing No Man’s Land” Copyright the Daily Mail
“An Attack: Crossing No Man’s Land” Copyright the Daily Mail

Special Feature by Laura Rollins Hockaday


I was proud and thrilled to hear about Jonathan Leshnoff’s Symphony No. 3 in commemoration of World War I, and that my father, Burnham Hockaday, had a connection to it. Dad would be overwhelmed to think that part of one his letters from WWI would be included in a new symphony. Overwhelmed! He would have been proud and thrilled, too, but he was such a humble man, I am sure he would wonder why his name ever came up. 

My father never talked about his WWI experiences. I wish I had asked him about them. I never wanted to bring up harrowing memories. He left Princeton University in his sophomore year, 1917, and enlisted in officer’s training at Camp Funston, Fort Riley, Kan., where he was for about a year, training mostly on horseback. According to my mother, he rode a horse across No Man’s Land [the dangerous land between front-line trenches], gathering information for brigade headquarters, but he never told me this. I had to read excruciating details about trench warfare and No Man’s Land to try to understand what he went through. He was a platoon leader and a 1st Lt. in Company A, 354th Infantry Regiment, 89th Division of the U.S. Army, then called the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF). A history of the 89th, which Dad gave me, mentions his bravery and leadership under fire but he never pointed that out – I found it in reading.

Portion of Letter by Burnie Hockaday
Portion of Letter by Burnie Hockaday


My father lived to be 100; he was born May 4, 1896, and died Dec. 30, 1996. His full name was James Kellogg Burnham Hockaday, but he was known to everyone as Burnie. Long after the war, he had some memorabilia he wanted to give to the museum at the Liberty Memorial, so we went down one day. While there he looked at a display of a trench and its “living” conditions. He remarked briefly that it looked a lot better than what he remembered. He gave the Museum about 25 letters he had written home that his family had saved. I didn’t realize how many he had donated until years later when I wanted to give a talk about my father for my book group and asked the Museum for copies of his letters. What stands out in my mind is that in the letters he never mentions the horror of war or what he had to endure. He never wanted to worry his family back home. He writes to his brother, Irvine O. (Mike) Hockaday about a fight overhead between American and German planes and treats it as a great Fourth of July display. 

My father had tremendous respect and admiration for the men in his company. He was devoted to them and they felt the same toward him – I heard this in person from one man’s granddaughter. They were fiercely loyal and were tough, dedicated men. Many of them were hard-working farmers from Missouri and Kansas. Dad kept a roster of them, and as each died, he would write “Taps” beside his name.

Dad spent six months in the trenches of France, fighting in two major battles, the Meuse-Argonne and the St. Mihiel Drive. After the war, he served 18 months in the Army of Occupation in Germany and was responsible for lodging thousands of soldiers. He spoke German before he went overseas and became close friends with a family he billeted with in Trier, on the Mosel River. They owned a vineyard, which was a lovely dividend. Some of the family visited our home in Kansas City years later. Returning home after nearly three years, Dad went back to Princeton and graduated with his brother in 1921. When he died, my father was the oldest survivor of the Class of 1919.

He always attended the concerts of the Kansas City Philharmonic Orchestra and later the Kansas City Symphony with my mother, Clara Hockaday. Next to my dad, music was the love of her life. She was president of the Women’s Division of the Philharmonic for several years and co-founded the Jewel Ball in 1954 with Mrs. R. Crosby (Enid) Kemper, Sr. The Philharmonic desperately needed money to survive and Mother thought a ball at the Nelson-Atkins Museum could raise the needed funds. It did and the Jewel Ball continues to this day.

I adored my father. He will always be a hero to me. He never wanted any glory or recognition. He wanted simply to live a good, honest and decent life and to do right by his fellow man. He would be so amazed and thrilled with the new National World War I Museum and Memorial and this musical commemoration. I wish he had lived to see it.

To hear the Kansas City Symphony, led by Music Director Michael Stern, present the world premiere of Jonathan Leshnoff’s Symphony No. 3, call the Symphony Box Office at (816) 471-0400 or select seats online here. Also on the program in Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony and Magnard’s Hymne à la justice. Tickets start at $25.

Get to Know Composer David Ludwig and Guest Violinist Bella Hristova

Violinist Bella Hristova. Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco
Violinist Bella Hristova. Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Editor’s note: Guest violinist Bella Hristova performs David Ludwig’s Violin Concerto (written expressly for her) with the Kansas City Symphony for the April 8-10 concerts in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. On the same program hear Ives’ Symphony No. 3, “The Camp Meeting,” Debussy’s Ibéria and Gershwin’s An American in Paris. Tickets start at $25. Select your seat online here or call the Symphony Box Office at (816) 471-0400.

1. Tell us about yourselves. How did you become professional musicians?
Bella: I was born in Bulgaria and started playing the violin when I was 6. I started with the violin because my mother wanted me to. My father was a composer and my mom played piano and was a choral conductor. I was very drawn to the piano as a young child, but it was her dream for me to play violin. Now of course, it’s become my dream and I love playing the violin — but I also love listening to piano music.

David: I grew up in a very musical family, but kept my own life as a musician pretty private until after I began on my own career path. I started getting commissions and making a life as a professional composer in my mid-twenties.

When I was 6, I wanted to be a steam roller, but quickly realized that wasn’t possible. So after that, I tried lessons on as many instruments as I could, settling on a few … but all along I was interested in writing — second to composing was playwriting. I’ve come to think that being a composer is like the merging of being a playwright and musician.

David Ludwig, composer.
David Ludwig, composer.

2. How did this commission come about, and what is the intent for the piece?
David: This commission is the result of a long conversation between Bella and me, Jaime Laredo, and Alan Jordan. Alan had the idea for the concerto with the Vermont Symphony (Alan is executive director with the Delaware Symphony now). Jaime is the music director of the VSO and they became the lead commissioner. Jaime has been an incredible mentor and friend to both Bella and me, and the thought was that the violin concerto would celebrate our marriage in some way. The commission became a consortium of eight orchestras total with additional support from New Music USA.

With a consortium, everybody wins — the composer and soloist get to have the piece played multiple times, and orchestras each get to premiere a new work regionally for a more feasible buy-in than if they were the sole commissioner. We love this because it means we can share this piece with audiences and have it played by terrific groups like the Kansas City Symphony.

3. Can you describe the movements?
(From the program notes) The piece is about the ritual of marriage, and it imagines the before, during, and after a traditional wedding ceremony.

The first movement “Dances” begins with a loud crash–a jarring but transformative start to something new that transitions into a waltz-like music soon after. All told there are four dances in the first movement, connected by a cadenza and concluded by a Rachenitsa in its traditional irregular meter. The second movement “Ceremony” follows the progression of the wedding ritual. A slow unraveling processional is woven throughout the fabric of this movement, ending in musical rings created by the rise and fall of the violin against solo instruments in the orchestra. The third movement “The Festival” is my version of a Krivo Horo or “Crooked Dance” that captures the way people attempt to walk home after a great party. The music is celebratory to the end, reflecting the coming together of a community inspired by two people promised to preserve each other’s wellbeing for the rest of their lives.

4. For Bella, what do you love most about this concerto?
Bella: It’s difficult to pick a favorite part of something this meaningful — and David has hidden little gems throughout the piece, such as our initials at the end of the second movement. Perhaps the most personal quote and one of my favorite things about it is that he quotes about 10 measures from my father’s violin concerto in the Ceremony movement. My dad passed away when I was very young and I never got to know him — and this way David found a way that my dad could be in some way involved in our wedding!

5. For David, what do you love most about your work?
David: That my beautiful and extraordinarily talented wife is premiering it! I have been thinking about this piece since we started together nearly six years ago.

6. Will this be your first time in Kansas City, and first time performing with the Kansas City Symphony?
Bella: Yes, it’s my first time in Kansas City and first time performing with the Symphony. I have many friends in the orchestra and have known Maestro Stern for quite a few years now, so I’m thrilled for us to come together for a very exciting week of music making!

David: Also my first time on both counts. And ditto/agreed on the rest. We have many good friends in that orchestra, and we’ve both known and admired Michael Stern for a long time. Also, I’m going to need to try the barbecue as soon as possible.

7. When you’re not making music, what other activities or pastimes do you enjoy?
Bella: I love spending time with our two cats, Uni and Schmoopy, watching TV, playing video games and solving jigsaw puzzles.

David: I guess I don’t have a lot of hobbies, but I love teaching and working with people and communities while on residencies. I spend a fair amount of time reading articles about music, science, and movies online — and probably too much time on Twitter and Facebook.

(The cats do keep us busy, but I’ll remind my wife that we have a pact not to bring them up when under 10 minutes of an interview or 500 words…)

8. What do you hope audiences take away from the performances?
David: For me, I want the concerto to share its message of partnership, empathy, and communion. But even before the message is the experience — I want the audience to be engaged in and moved by the music from the opening crash of the piece to the fast ending scales. And between soloist, orchestra, and conductor — to extend the playwright analogy — I have incredible actors and a great director to make it happen.

Bella: I am so excited to share this very personal and special work with the audiences of Kansas City. I hope they will see this great new concerto coming to life right in front of them.

9. Anything else you’d like to add?
David: I can’t wait!

Bella: Ditto! Also, barbecue!!!

To secure your tickets to hear guest violinist Bella Hristova perform David Ludwig’s Violin Concerto (written expressly for her) with the Kansas City Symphony for the April 8-10 concerts in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, visit the ticket page here or call the Symphony Box Office between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Tickets start at $25. Also on the program is Ives’ Symphony No. 3, “The Camp Meeting,” Debussy’s Ibéria and Gershwin’s An American in Paris.

Get to Know Guest Pianist Benjamin Grosvenor

Benjamin Grosvenor - operaomnia.co.uk
Benjamin Grosvenor – operaomnia.co.uk

Editor’s note: Guest pianist Benjamin Grosvenor performs Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 with the Kansas City Symphony for the April 1-3 concerts in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Mahler’s First Symphony is also on the program. Tickets start at $25. Select your seat online here or call the Symphony Box Office at (816) 471-0400.

What are you most looking forward to in your upcoming performances with the Kansas City Symphony?

I’m looking forward to playing the Mozart concerto with your wonderful orchestra. It’s a glorious piece, beautifully lyrical and full of elegance and charm.

Do you have a favorite part or moment in the Mozart piece?

The slow movement is incredibly serene and beautiful, but there is a particularly touching and intimate moment where the violins and wind join the piano for a restatement of the opening theme.

Will this be your first time playing in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts? Is this your first time in Kansas City?

This will be my first time at Helzberg Hall, but not in Kansas City, as I gave a recital with the Friends of Chamber Music in April 2014. However I wasn’t there for very long then, so I hope to walk and explore the city a little more this time.

What’s up next for you? Where do you travel to after Kansas City?

Immediately after I am going to Washington D.C. to play the same piece there, and I’m playing it also in Naples, Florida before going back to England.

cs10_4-1_zpse6a52414 To secure your tickets to hear guest pianist Benjamin Grosvenor perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 with the Kansas City Symphony for the April 1-3 concerts in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, visit the ticket page here or call the Symphony Box Office at (816) 471-0400 between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Tickets start at $25. Mahler’s First Symphony is also on the program.



Doc Severinsen Returns June 2017!

Doc Severinsen
Doc Severinsen will perform with the Kansas City Symphony on June 8, 2017, in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

Doc Severinsen Returns June 2017 to Play with Kansas City Symphony for His 90th Birthday Celebration

Concert available as add-on to season subscriptions now; single tickets on sale in July

Legendary trumpet player and former bandleader of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” Doc Severinsen returns for his second appearance in back-to-back seasons with the Kansas City Symphony. In celebration of his 90th birthday, he will perform with the Symphony at 7 p.m. on June 8, 2017, in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

In the coming “Here’s Doc!” concert, Severinsen will present his take on hits from the American Songbook and Big Band eras while sharing stories from his incredible 70-year career. The lineup includes favorites such as “Summertime,” “September Song,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “I Got it Bad (And That Ain’t Good),” plus several special surprises.

Severinsen previously appeared with the Symphony for a sold-out, holiday-themed concert called “Jingle Bell Doc” in December 2015.

Currently, season subscribers can add on the Doc Severinsen concert to season packages. Concert tickets range $49-99. In July, single tickets will go on sale to the public. For more information or to add-on tickets to a season subscription, please visit kcsymphony.org or call the Kansas City Symphony Box Office at (816) 471-0400.