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PLAYING RIGHT THROUGH: Summerfest continues exploring new approaches

By Paul Horsley

Here’s a hint for performing-arts groups: If you want to keep the public interested year-in, year-out, you have to try new things all the time. Kansas City’s Summerfest, a breath of fresh air each July in the form of professional chamber-music in appealing venues, is about to begin its 27th season. And it hasn’t survived this long by sitting around.

“We’re always experimenting with ways of making the experience distinctive,” said Alexander East, one of the group’s three Artistic Directors, who during the regular season is Assistant Principal Cello of the Kansas City Symphony.

Last season Summerfest ventured out to the Kansas City Fringe Festival, one of the first classical ensembles to take that step. This year, in addition to returning to Fringe Fest, they’re taking an even bolder leap: They’ve eliminated intermissions from their concerts altogether, a concept that seems to be “trending” among arts groups nationwide.

“One of the things we learned from our Fringe Festival experience last year,” Alex said, “is to try and minimize these giant gaps between pieces, and have some continuous form … getting more of a flow.” That means each concert will last between 60 and 90 minutes, so that patrons can dash to the food tables for Summerfest’s celebrated post-concert receptions (if they’re of a mind to) and engage in lively conversation with the musicians they’ve all grown fond of over the years.

“We’re still going to have the same amount of music,” said clarinetist and UMKC Conservatory faculty member Jane Carl, also a Summerfest Artistic Director. (The third Artistic Director is KCS Associate Principal Flute Shannon Finney.) “But we’re making the concerts more compact. … You won’t have to be there as long.” Glowing screens have shortened our attention spans, she added. And by minimizing stage resets, the ensemble can keep audiences engaged for a more concentrated period, shortening concerts “not by virtue of the music,” she said, “but by the virtue of less down-time.”

Also new this year is the group’s first-ever all-Czech program, which happened as much by accident as intention. In past years the group has tried to find a “theme” for a whole season, though lately they’d decided to let that go. “But then we started to notice these sort of thematic commonalities around the programs for each week,” Jane said. “And this first one just happened to be all-Czech.” In addition to Smetana’s classic “From My Life” String Quartet, the opening program (July 8-9) includes an early work by Pavel Haas and a lighthearted suite from 1952 by Jiří Jaroch.

Violist Jessica Nance, cellist Alexander East, and flutist Shanney Finney / Photo courtesy of Summerfest
Violist Jessica Nance, cellist Alexander East and flutist Shanney Finney / Courtesy of Summerfest

“We like to play repertoire that isn’t often heard in Kansas City,” Jane said. But there’s another reason Summerfest has thrived for a quarter-century: friendship. More than half of the musicians are KC Symphony or UMKC faculty members, yet during the year they rarely get to play the chamber music they love. “You’d be shocked how hard it is to get four of these people together in a room, twice,” said Alex with a laugh. Many of the players do indeed perform together, in the Symphony or in other contexts, Jane added, but opportunities to draw upon the vast chamber repertoire are rare. “We don’t come together often as a string quartet, say, or as a woodwind quintet.”

This summer’s lineup features some standards we’ve never heard on the series (Ravel’s Piano Trio), as well as relative rarities by Charles Griffes, Osvaldo Golijov, Bruce Adolphe, Reynaldo Hahn and Thomas Albert. And here’s another nice thing: If you like something (or even if you don’t), you can let the players know. “Our stalwarts know what they liked and what they didn’t like,” Jane said. “And they are not shy about telling us.” Indeed post-concert meet-and-greets were a part of the Summerfest experience long before such things became a norm. “Now every does it,” Jane said.

In the best of worlds, the players are surprised and delighted when a piece they’re unsure about turns out to be a hit. One was Thomas Albert’s Thirteen Ways, which not only involves percussion effects (including triangles and buckets of water) but also requires the players themselves to recite from the Wallace Stevens poem on which the work is based. “It’s a different sort of piece and we were worried about that,” Jane said of the group’s first performance of the Albert, in 2011. “And people afterward were like, ‘Ooo that was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.’ … But we’re never quite sure.”

Summerfest concerts are from July 8th through the 30th at White Recital Hall, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church and the Bolender Center. Call 816-235-6222 or see summerfestkc.org. 

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send email to paul@kcindependent.com or find him on Facebook (paul.horsley.501) or Twitter (@phorsleycritic).

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Summerfest 2017: The Art and Soul of Chamber Music

Concerts are at 7:30 p.m. each Saturday at White Hall, UMKC and are repeated at 3 p.m. each Sunday at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church (except for July 22-28 concerts, which are at the Todd Bolender Center for Dance and Creativity).

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JULY 8-9: CZECH US OUT

Jiří Jaroch: Dětská Suita pro noneto (Children’s Suite), wind quintet, violin, viola, cello and double bass

Pavel Haas: Wind Quintet

Bedřich Smetana: String Quartet No. 1, “From My Life”

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JULY 15-16: ROMANCE

Charles Griffes: Tone Pictures, for winds, strings and piano

Carl Nielsen: Serenata in vano, for clarinet, bassoon, horn, cello and double-bass

Reynaldo Hahn: Sérénade, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon

Maurice Ravel: Piano Trio in A minor

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JULY 22, 23, 27 & 28: FOR THE BIRDS (Fringe Festival)

Michael Horwood: Birds, for piccolo, piano and slide show

Thomas Albert: Thirteen Ways, for flute(s), clarinet(s), violin (viola), cello, percussion and piano

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JULY 29-30: JOY AND REMEMBRANCE: AWAKENING OF THE SPIRIT

J.S. Bach: Trio Sonata in G major, BWV 1039, for violin, oboe, cello and harpsichord

Osvaldo Golijov: Tenebrae

Maurice Emmanuel: Sonata, op. 11, for clarinet, flute and piano

Margaret Brouwer: Whom Do You Call Angel Now?

Bruce Adolphe: Bridgehampton Concerto

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Shannon Finney, bassoonist Joshua Hood and clarinetist Jane Carl / Courtesy of Summerfest
Shannon Finney, bassoonist Joshua Hood and clarinetist Jane Carl / Courtesy of Summerfest

The Musicians

All are Kansas City Symphony members unless otherwise noted

Violins: Kristin Velicer, Anne-Marie Brown, Anthony DeMarco, Philip Marten

Violas: Jessica Nance, Sean Brumble

Cellos: Alexander East, Maria Crosby

Bass: Richard Ryan

Flutes: Shannon Finney, Michael Gordon

Oboes: Melissa Peña (Assistant Professor, University of Oregon), Celeste Johnson Frehner (Associate Professor, UMKC Conservatory)

Bassoon: Joshua Hood (Charlotte Symphony)

Horns: David Sullivan, Elizabeth Gray

Piano: Dan Velicer (Associate Adjunct Professor, Collaborative Piano, UMKC Conservatory)

Harpsichord: Charles Metz (The Newberry Consort, Smithsonian Chamber Music Society and other groups)

Percussion: Michael Zell (Sō Percussion, NuDeco and other groups)

Soprano: Gwendolyn Coleman Detwiler (Associate Professor, Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music)

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