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A SECRET NO LONGER: International fame is shining light on sleepy Parkville

When you’re selling a somewhat offbeat product, sometimes the biggest challenge is explaining to people what it is and why they need it. When it comes to marketing, publicity, and fundraising for Park University’s International Center for Music, one obstacle to spreading awareness about it locally has been its uniqueness: There’s nothing quite like it, here or anywhere else.

Lisa Merrill Hickok / Photo by Bruce Mathews

“It’s probably more well-known in Uzbekistan and China and Korea than it is in Kansas City,” said Lisa Merrill Hickok, who stepped into the ICM’s new position of executive director on July 13th. “It’s been the best ‘well-kept secret’ here for a long time, and that needs to change.”

Located within Park University’s Graham Tyler Memorial Chapel in tranquil Parkville, the Center has been defined as a “boutique conservatory.” Each year it offers between 20 and 30 students a level of one-on-one professional training that larger schools simply cannot offer. “There are no other programs quite like this,” Lisa said. “We find the most talented students from around the world … who are looking for an unusual artistic environment: one that is really about refining your craft.”

As ICM alumni have gradually begun to gain international renown, partly through high-profile professional positions and victories at major competitions, the community has begun taking notice. Yet despite these strides, the Center is still more likely to be recognized in far-flung reaches of the globe than it is in Kansas City.

The Park Trio / Photo by Larry F. Levenson

During the past 30 years, Lisa has become one of the most well-respected figures in the local arts community. And as a consultant for the Center since 2017, she has already generated such excitement for the ICM that Park’s faculty and administration were convinced she was ideal for this job.

“Lisa has worked hard over the last three years to strengthen the International Center for Music brand, audience, and donor engagement,” said the University’s president, Greg Gunderson. “Now is the right time to bring her on as executive director to help take the ICM to the next level in Kansas City and beyond.”

A Kansas City native with degrees in journalism and communications, Lisa was marketing director for the Kansas City Ballet (where she had initially danced professionally) and executive director of Summerfest. She has served on several boards and has chaired the Ballet’s Golden Gala and the UMKC Conservatory’s Crescendo. As founding president of Merrill, she has consulted for a number of local arts groups.

“She makes things happen,” said Stanislav Ioudenitch, ICM’s artistic director and piano professor, who helped establish the Center shortly after winning the Gold Medal at the 2001 Van Cliburn Competition. “Everything she says, it happens. … She is from here, and she knows what is going on here.”

Artists Kenny Broberg, Maria Ioudenitch, Lolita Lisovskaya-Sayevich, Behzod Abduraimov, Ben Sayevich, Dilshod Narzillaev, Daniel Veis, and Stanislav Ioudenitch at the Park University International Center for Music’s Stanislav & Friends event last year / Photo by Larry F. Levenson

Lisa said she loves working with musicians full-time, and that after so many years of operating in the dance world she finds “the work ethic is extremely similar. … They all work very hard, and very long hours, preparing incessantly into whatever hours of the day or night that they have to.” As a former dancer she understands, too, that “the performance is everything. To take it in front of an audience is the pinnacle of what you’ve work so hard for.”

Her work as ICM consultant culminated in last year’s Stanislav and Friends, a concert held on the Helzberg Hall stage that became the most successful fund-raising event in the ICM’s history. (A fresh version of this will be offered this September 17th and 25th, though in a slightly different format: For more information see icm.park.edu.)

“It was one of the most smoothly run events ever,” said Stanislav, who heads a faculty that includes violinist Ben Sayevich, cellist Daniel Veis, and three other renowned musicians. Among Lisa’s tasks going forward will be “fund development and increasing awareness of the program,” she said. “Bringing in new friends, and hopefully turning them into supporters. There’s only so much you can do as a consultant: You can herd sheep in the right direction, but when it comes to sitting down and making ‘asks,’ … you need the institution behind you.”

While Park’s ICM has been “well-known within a small, tightly knit, happy little community, much of it north of the river,” she said, “my charge, even over the last three years, was to start making the ‘brand’ more recognizable: creating marketing materials that had never been created, making an ICM-specific website, creating a season of concerts.”

Laurel Gagnon / Robert Hoops Photography

What makes Park unique is its status as a sort of “arts organization embedded within a university,” she said, and though ICM students are required to do all the coursework of other Park students, they are also held to extremely rigorous artistic standards, partly through a two-lesson-per-week structure that is rare at conservatories.

Like many such tailor-made academic programs, the ICM must raise a large portion of its own funding, and this is where the school’s public presentations have come into play. Few things draw the public’s attention like victories at international competitions, and in the 17 years since its founding, the ICM has produced a wildly disproportionate number of prizewinners, even compared to such juggernauts as Juilliard and Curtis.

Pianist Behzod Abduraimov, who is now an artist-in-residence at the ICM, won the London International Piano Competition in 2009 and has become one of the most famous young pianists in the world. Violinist David Radzynski, who earned an artist certificate at the ICM, is concertmaster of the Israel Philharmonic. Violinist Laurel Gagnon won fourth prize at the Singapore International Violin Competition. Pianist Kenny Broberg took the Silver Medal at the 2017 Van Cliburn Competition, Bronze at the 2019 Tchaikovsky Competition, and the top prize awarded by the American Pianists Association this year.

Behzod Abduraimov / Photo by Evgeny Eutykhov

Also during the past school year, violinist Igor Khukhua won Bronze at the Elmar Oliveira Competition, cellist Dilshod Narzillaev won fourth prize at the Antonio Janigro Competition, pianist Simon Karakulidi won Gold at the Wideman Competition, and pianist Kyoshiro Hirama earned fifth prize in the Sendai Competition.

Nevertheless, Lisa’s work is cut out for her. She is tasked “not only with fundraising,” Stanislav said, “but getting the word out about our organization. There are a million things to do … and we’ll all help, in every way, as much as we can.”

For her part, Lisa feels she has landed in a post where she can have greatest impact: She knows what makes arts organizations tick as well as anyone in the region. The international successes of ICM’s students “are the things that we need to be shouting about,” she said. “They get the name of Park University in front of a huge audience. … And it’s my job to keep getting it out there.”

—By Paul Horsley

The International Center for Music’s Stanislav & Friends: Uncut, a virtual benefactor event, will take place “live-on-tape” at the Boulevard Drive-In on September 17th. It will be streamed to the public at icm.park.edu from 12 a.m. to 11:59 p.m. on September 25th. For information about participation in the gala, which features Kay Barnes and Tom Van Dyke as honorary chairs, click on icm.park.edu/icm-gala.

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

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