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Richard Harriman, World-Renowned Arts Presenter, Dies at 77

Richard Harriman, the William Jewell College professor who spent a half century building the Harriman-Jewell Series into one of the nation’s premier performing arts presenters, died July 15 at Liberty Hospital. He was 77. A gracious and amiable man who always greeted his audience members as they arrived at Series concerts, Harriman had suffered from Parkinson’s disease and leukemia for several years. A public memorial service is scheduled for 3 p.m. August 8 at Gano Memorial Chapel on the William Jewell College campus in Liberty.

“It was a peaceful end to an amazing life,” said Clark Morris, the Series’ executive director since 2003, whom Richard had groomed to be his successor. Richard, who continued as artistic director after Clark’s appointment, continued to come into the office until just a week before his death, Clark added. “He was at it right to the end.” Beth Ingram, a friend for more than 40 years and a longtime contributor to the Series, said it was characteristic of Richard to keep quiet about his illness. “He was so quiet and modest and unassuming,” said Beth, who often traveled with Richard on talent-scouting trips and attended the wedding of tenorJuan Diego Flórez with him in Lima, Peru in 2008. “He had the cutest sense of humor that you ever heard. He was very quiet, but if you sat and really listened to him he was really very funny.”

In 1965 Richard and fellow professor Dean Dunham co-founded at Jewell what was at first called the Fine Arts Series. When the Series outgrew Gano Chapel in the 1980s it moved downtown to the Folly Theater and the Music Hall. Richard knew that if the Series was to expand it had to be at the center of things, Beth said. “That shows what good business sense he had, too.”

Jewell President David Sallee said in a statement that Richard made “an enormous contribution to William Jewell College and to the entire Kansas City community. His remarkable, intuitive sense of seeking out artists whose careers were ascending led him to introduce us to some incomparable performers over the course of 45 incredible seasons on the Series that bears his name.”

The list of Series presentations through the years reads like a Who’s Who of worldwide music, dance and theater — from Isaac Stern to Marilyn Horne, from the Royal Concertgebouw to the Philadelphia Orchestra, from Paul Taylor to Alvin Ailey and the American Ballet Theatre. The Series always shed special light on opera singers, presenting nearly every major star on the Metropolitan Opera’s roster from the 1960s onward. In 1973 Richard presented the world recital debut of an up-and-coming tenor named Luciano Pavarotti, who would become a friend and regular guest.

In addition to his ability to seek out new talent, Richard worked hard to make the series a well-rounded representation of the very best in music and dance. Many of my own fondest memories during my decade as a music critic in Kansas City have been from presentations on his series — such as the stellar 2005 performance by tenor Ben Heppner in his prime, one of the most powerful recitals I’ve ever experienced. In fact, when I first considered moving here from Philadelphia in 2000, the abundance of arts presentations in Kansas City was one of the city’s selling points. Richard was of course responsible for a great deal of that. “When I first moved to Kansas City, there were so few concerts that I thought I was on a desert island,” Friends of Chamber Music founder Cynthia Siebert told me in 2007, during a fund-raising gala celebrating Richard’s 75th birthday. “I could not have done what I did (with the Friends) if he had not paved the way.”

David Parsons, the Kansas City native whose dance company has become an international force in contemporary dance, wrote the following in an email. “I was 12 years old when Richard Harriman brought The Joffrey Ballet to Kansas City. That evening changed my life. Richard would bring great artists to Kansas City but he also knew how to bring a faithful audience to the theater. This gift, which he gave to both artists and audiences, is rare. He was the first to bring Parsons Dance home to Kansas City in 1987. I will miss his wise, kind, soft spoken words of advice and the love he had for artists, audiences and the performing arts.”

“He was such a dear man, and he had the respect and admiration of so many people in the industry,” said Barbara Hocher,executive director of the Marilyn Horne Foundation, named for the singer who appeared more than any other soloist on the Series (10 appearances from 1968 to 2000). International mezzo-soprano and Our Town native Joyce DiDonato, who sang her local recital debut on the Series, wrote this on her blog:

“In him, we have the perfect example of what dedication and imagination can bring to the world: In bringing more than 850 events to one city over the years, a single human being with a vision and the fortitude to follow it through, well, changed the lives of the people of my hometown. He brought us beauty and introspection and laid the world at our feet. No need for passports and airfare — he graciously brought it all to us.”

Indeed, what I remember most about Richard is his graciousness and civility. As recently as April, I had lunch with him at Webster House with his colleagues Clark Morris and Tim Ackerman. He was his usual witty self. We sat at a table overlooking the Kauffman Center construction site, and I wonder now if he gazed somewhat wistfully at the site — hoping that he’d live long enough to attend the first performances in the Center that his very presence in Kansas City helped propel.

Contributions can be made to the Harriman-Jewell Series’ Richard L. Harriman Fund for Excellence in the Arts. Call the Series’ development office at 816-415-5025 for more information.

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send email to phorsley@sbcglobal.net.

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.

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