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History of the Kansas City Philharmonic

By Rhett Del Campo

FITS AND STARTS

There has been more than a century of determination by the people of Kansas City to have an orchestra. Nearly 25 percent of the 32,000 people who populated the town in the 1870’s included men and women with rich European heritages, particularly from Germany, who brought with them an appreciation for classical music.

With the belief that a professional symphony orchestra is central to cultural development and integral to the economic well-being of any city, there were several attempts to start a permanent orchestra in Kansas City dating back to the 1890s. In 1896, a violinist in the Boston Symphony, John Behr, directed the first Kansas City Symphony. They performed every Friday evening at the Coates Opera House located near what now is 10th and Broadway in the Quality Hill neighborhood (the building burned to the ground shortly after a theater performance on January 31st, 1901). At the end of the first season, the musicians divided the earnings, which worked out to about $19 each.  Around the same time, Danish-born conductor Sir Carl Busch led the Philharmonic Orchestra of Kansas City, which existed for a brief period between 1895 and 1902. Disappointed in the city’s lack of support, Busch moved to Berlin for a year where he considered becoming a permanent resident.

Between 1902 and 1918, there were other efforts to start and grow an orchestra, including another Kansas City Symphony led by Busch. In 1908, the Symphony only played three concerts, but by 1911, Busch’s vision was finally realized and the 56-member Kansas City Symphony played one concert a month for seven months each season until 1918.

THE BIRTH

Kansas City Philharmonic
Music Director Karl Krueger (1933-1944)

Until the establishment of the Kansas City Philharmonic, there were no full-size orchestras between St. Louis and Denver. A conductor by the name of Arnold Volpe, who had previously been conducting operas in Washington, D.C., arrived in Kansas City in 1922 to head the Kansas City Conservatory of Music (now the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance) and was asked by local musicians to form a professional orchestra. Nothing came to fruition until 1931 when the president of the Chamber of Commerce, Conrad Mann, became interested in the project. When asked whether or not Kansas City was ready to take on yet another experiment with a permanent orchestra (according to an April 23, 1938 Dallas Morning News article), Mr. Mann stated that, “Kansas City could either be just another big cattle and corn town, or it could be a place in which to live well. It [has] a flourishing art institute, an art gallery of major importance through the William Rockhill Nelson bequest, a university in the making and a well-known conservatory of music. The thing needed to round out the picture [is] a really fine orchestra.”

Volpe offered to conduct a group of 90 musicians in two demonstration concerts for the purpose of proving to the Chamber of Commerce they had something worthy of supporting. Mann funded the concerts, which were heard by nearly 4,000 people in Convention Hall on December 17 and 18, 1931. The concerts were a success and fueled efforts to develop the promising ensemble.

A task vital to the new orchestra’s success was the selection of a music director. Although there were already three prime candidates for the role — Arnold Volpe, Carl Busch, and Italian conductor, N. DeRubertis (Kansas City’s Little Symphony Orchestra director and also the director of the Kansas City Orchestral Training School) — new blood was sought and found. Thirty-nine year old Karl Krueger, a European trained native of Atchison, Kansas, was called upon to lead the upstart orchestra. Krueger had been a guest conductor with the Chicago Symphony and came from the Vienna Imperial Opera via the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, where he conducted from 1925 to 1932. It was Frederick Stock, conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who persuaded Krueger to come back to the States to lead an orchestra.

THE PREMIERE

Only in the middle West could such a thing occur. It is perhaps an advantage not to know we can’t do a thing. As Amelia Earhart said when she set foot on the soil of Ireland after crossing the Atlantic in a solo flight, “I did it.” Kansas City can say the same incredible thing. - Kansas City Star, November 29, 1933

Prior to the Philharmonic’s premiere, Krueger remarked, “The greatest fallacy in connection with music is the belief on the part of many laymen that only the listener who understands the mechanics of the music can get enjoyment from hearing it. Nothing could be further from the truth and it is deplorable that the misconception has prevented many persons from feeling the deep joy that great music imparts. Wagner never tired of insisting that the public should not be aware that anything technical exists in music.”

On November 28, 1933, after several weeks of preparatory rehearsals, the Kansas City Philharmonic made its debut at Convention Hall to an audience of more than 3,700. The program included Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Liszt’s Les Preludes and ended with a prolonged and appreciative ovation from the audience. The next day, the Kansas City Star editorial page stated that, “the most impressive feature, with the possible exception of the performance itself, was the amazed delight of the audience and the spontaneous wholeheartedness with which it expressed its delight. After all, the public is the best critic, and the only critic whose opinion in the long run counts for anything.”

Of the 91-member orchestra, most were drawn from the Kansas City area, and 16 were imported from the Chicago Symphony as principal players to help build the sections. In 1936, the Chicago Daily Tribune referred to the Kansas City Philharmonic as “that miracle of the depression.” At the time, the orchestra existed purely on funds from ticket sales. The most expensive seats were $12 for eight concerts and the lowest priced seats were $2 for students, or just a quarter for each performance. Ticket sales exceeded $49,000 for the first season, which closed with a cash surplus of $0.97. The second saw a profit of $250. During this era, playing with the orchestra was a part-time endeavor for the musicians, who had to supplement their Philharmonic earnings through teaching and numerous other jobs.

Concert audiences for the first few years averaged more than 4,000 per performance. Attendance for the first season was slightly more than 55,000 and increased dramatically in the second season to over 100,000. In the third season, the Philharmonic played their last concert at Convention Hall to some 6,000 people (with even more turned away at the door) and then moved into its next home across the street, the newly built $6 million, 2,500 seat, Kansas City Municipal Auditorium and Music Hall.

After seeing the subscription audiences grow to become one of the largest in the country, Krueger’s successful tenure as music director ended in 1943. He later authored the book, The Way of the Conductor: His Origins, Purpose and Procedures (New York, 1958). Taking over as music director was a Russian-born and trained musician named Efrem Kurtz, who had previously conducted the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo in Paris as well as on international tours. Kurtz quickly enhanced the Philharmonic’s prestige by attracting celebrated guest artists to make their Kansas City debuts such as cellist Zara Nelsova.

THE SCHWEIGER YEARS (1948-1971)

Kansas City Philharmonic Music Director
Dr. Hans Schweiger (1948-1971)

Dr. Hans Schwieger was born in Cologne, Germany on June 15, 1906. He served as the general music director for the Mainz State Opera and Symphony in 1932 but was dismissed from the position by the Nazi authorities in 1934 due to his marriage to Elsbeth Bloemendal, who was Jewish. Schwieger came to the United States in March 1938. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he was detained for a year by the American government as a suspected enemy alien but he finally became a citizen in 1944, on the same day Elsbeth died suddenly in New York City from a brain tumor.

Schwieger made a national reputation for himself with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic in Indiana as well as many years of guest conducting throughout the US.  In 1948, he was appointed Music Director to the Philharmonic. Under his tenure, the orchestra greatly expanded its regular Music Hall and Plaza subscription series as well as family programs and informal cabaret concerts.

The 1952-53 season saw the start of the annual Grand Opera Festival, which included performances of two different operas directed by Schwieger. Also starting in 1953, the Philharmonic could be heard on WDAF’s “The Kansas City Hour” every Sunday.

Celebrating its 25th anniversary season (1957-1958), the tenth season under Schwieger, the orchestra opened with the same program that inaugurated the Kansas City Philharmonic back in 1933:

                Tchaikovsky                       Symphony No. 5

                Mussorgsky                       Night on Bald Mountain

                Mendelssohn                     Scherzo from Midsummer Night’s Dream

                Satie                                      First Gymnopedie

                Liszt                                       Les Preludes

The season also was the first for the “Connoisseur Concerts,” a series of five concerts throughout the year that highlighted 20th-century music. They were held at the Temple B’Nai Jehudah at 69th and Holmes Road and tickets to all five concerts cost $10.

Other highlights of the anniversary season included the second appearance of 15-year-old piano prodigy Daniel Barenboim and a Silver Anniversary Benefit Concert including comedian Jack Benny with former President Harry S. Truman as master of ceremonies. President Truman, a Missouri native, was the Honorary Chairman of the Board of the Philharmonic for decades and organized benefit concerts on many occasions.

From left: Comedian Jack Benny, President Harry S. Truman and KC Phil Music Director
Dr. Hans Schweiger
meeting prior to the Silver Anniversary Benefit concert in 1958.


The following season (1958-1959), Schwieger returned to the Philharmonic after working in Stuttgart, Germany where he prepared and presented the world premiere of Leos Janacek’s new opera, Das Schicksal. Also, WDAF’s “Kansas City Hour” began broadcasting on television as well. For stereo sound, listeners were instructed to place the radio six to eight feet to the right of the television set.

In January 1964, the orchestra embarked on a 6,000-mile tour throughout California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, and Kansas. Besides the rigorous performance schedule of 23 concerts in 24 days, eight Philharmonic members were injured in Washington when the tour bus skidded off a snowy highway and rolled over. 

Throughout Schwieger’s time with the orchestra, many notable artists made Philharmonic appearances including pianists Rudolph Serkin, Claudio Arrau, Robert Casadesus, Artur Rubinstein, Leon Fleisher, Van Cliburn and José Iturbi. Violin soloists included Isaac Stern, Nathan Milstein, Sydney Harth and Yehudi Menuhin. Opera stars came from the Metropolitan Opera and other companies and included such luminaries as Heidi Krall, Albert Da Costa, Birgit Nilsson, Joan Sutherland, Gladys Swarthout, Risë Stevens, Lily Pons and baritone William Warfield, famous in part for his role as “Joe” in MGM's 1951 Technicolor remake of Show Boat, singing “Ol’ Man River.”

The Kansas City Philharmonic performed with many popular stars throughout its existence: band leaders Benny Goodman and Lawrence Welk, jazz greats Louis Armstrong and Pearl Bailey and legendary performers Mel Torme, Tony Bennett, Liza Minnelli, Alan King and Jimmy Durante. The Philharmonic also welcomed the notable composers and conductors Virgil Thompson, Aaron Copland and Robert Shaw.

The long list of world-renowned artists coming through Kansas City during the Schwieger years also included guitarist Andres Segovia, cellist Janos Starker and conductors/composers Carlos Chávez and Aram Khachaturian.

“There is a hierarchy in music that can be drawn from the complexity of the instrument. You could start with a single shepherd boy’s voice singing from a mountainside, but you will end with a two-million-dollar instrument called a symphony orchestra. Growth is inevitable in anyone who seriously pursues any of the arts. Many of today’s young rock lovers, already listening to Bach, will become tomorrow’s Philharmonic patrons. We need only provide a timely opportunity – an orchestra to hear.” – Hans Schwieger

THROUGH THE YEARS

Growth and transition were emblematic of the era and the Philharmonic sought to change with the times. At the height of its existence, the Kansas City Philharmonic rehearsed and performed more than 200 services annually and toured frequently throughout Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Texas. Eastern tours included appearances at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. Education concerts for students of all ages were also a significant part of the Philharmonic’s schedule from its inception.

Civic-minded businesses also supported the Philharmonic.  For more than 25 years, from 1944 through to its merger with Skaggs, the Katz Drug Company’s high-profile sponsorship of an annual fall concert brought live symphonic music within reach of anyone who could go to a Kansas City Katz store and ask for a free ticket or receive one in exchange for a purchase of as little as fifty cents.  

During Jorge Mester’s tenure (1971-74), the season was expanded to 32 weeks and featured a chamber music series, cabaret series, and some informal “Just Sittin’ In” concerts.

The 1975-76 season, the first led by Maurice Peress, opened with a series titled, “Mozart, I Love You Madly.” The three concerts were held in the Crown Center’s Multimedia Forum. Closed circuit television gave the audience a chance to watch the conductor’s face on a transmission monitor at the same time they saw his back on stage. Prior to the concert, the audience watched slides depicting Mozart’s time. The Mozart Series continued in the Crown Center’s Multimedia Forum, the Folly Theatre, and Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral. In 1979 it expanded to include “preludes” of light classics, ragtime, and jazz and moved to the historic Uptown Theatre, which had been renovated and acoustically redesigned.

A public television project with Mid-American Arts Alliance and Nebraska ETV entitled “12th Street Rag” began in 1978 and contained segments of Philharmonic performances at Kansas City’s Uptown Theatre, in Sedalia (Missouri) and New York. A final version was edited for broadcast and scheduled for release in the 1979-80 season. In May 1978, “A Beethoven Festival” marked the first spring music festival by the Philharmonic. The next season’s festival honored Leonard Bernstein’s 60th birthday.

FINALE

Despite the preceding years’ accomplishments, the deep recession of the early 1980s intensified challenges to the Philharmonic’s finances. In February 1982, Kansas City Philharmonic Association President Norman Kahn announced the cancellation of the contract between the Philharmonic and the musicians’ union.  A special meeting of the Board of Directors and Governors was convened on July 1 where a resolution to disband was carried by a majority. On September 15, 1982, the Kansas City Philharmonic Association formally voted to dissolve.

Immediately the question arose: Would a new orchestra be organized? Reporters across the country, from New York to Los Angeles, covered the story and soon had their answer. Kansas City business leader R. Crosby Kemper, Jr. took the lead to gain support of other key civic leaders to establish a group of “founding trustees” of the new Kansas City Symphony.   This group included Henry W. Bloch, William N. Deramus III, George C. Dillon, James H. Hale, Donald J. Hall, Paul H. Henson, R. Crosby Kemper, Jr., George E. Powell Jr, Richard H. Spencer, George A. Russell, and Richard J. Stern. Mr. Kemper also served as the new Symphony’s first board president.

In describing his motivation to form the Kansas City Symphony, Kemper was quoted in The Kansas City Star saying, “Music to me, to my mother, and my sister, is a great human need.   Even in difficult times there are spiritual needs, and music is one of them. It’s not a question of do we or don’t we – we have to have quality music in Kansas City. Losing our orchestra would be a terrible thing to contemplate for Kansas City.” Robert W. MacGregor, then head of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce said, “The quality-of-life issues are very important to keeping this a great city…This is going to make my job of building the city a lot easier.”

The new Kansas City Symphony played its first concerts only a month later, on October 22 and 23, 1982 at the Lyric Theater under the direction of Russell Patterson. A new era was launched.

RISING FROM THE ASHES

The Kansas City Philharmonic was born during a time of nationwide depression. It was called an “act of courage” by newspapers throughout the country. The Dallas Morning News referred to it as a “depression-born, recession-nourished” orchestra.  It is said that the dissolution in 1982, one year shy of its 50th anniversary, was an even greater act of courage as Kansas City “let go of the old [to] make way for the new and up to date.” Today’s Kansas City Symphony owes much to the Philharmonic musicians and visionary community leaders, past and present, for their belief that Kansas City needs and deserves a professional symphony orchestra. The Philharmonic’s legacy is heard in every Kansas City Symphony performance.

Kansas City Philharmonic Music Directors

1933-1944:           Karl Krueger

1944-1948:           Efrem Kurtz

1948-1971:           Dr. Hans Schweiger

1971-1974:           Jorge Mester (listed as Artistic Advisor)

1974-1980:           Maurice Peress

1980-1982:           Thomas Michalak