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The 2015 Interviews - Michael Stern

We're interviewing individuals connected to the 2015 World Champion Royals and the greater Kansas City community. Today: Music Director of the Kansas City Symphony, Michael Stern.

Matt Slocum

Last season, the Kansas City Royals won the American League pennant, galvanizing the community and forging a generation of Royals fans. I talked to multiple members of the community about the exciting season, and asked them what it meant to them.

This season, the Royals won the World Series, completing a journey through the desert that lasted 30 years. Again, I will talk with important members of the community about this achievement, their place in it, and the joy of the World Champions Royals.

Today's interviewee is Michael Stern, conductor and Music Director of the Kansas City Symphony. Under Stern's leadership, the symphony has blossomed into one of the finest orchestras in the country, beautifully filling the halls of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Stern and the Symphony performed last season at Game 6 of the World Series and again on Opening Day this season.

As a "born and bred New Yorker," as you have said yourself, what was it like watching two of your favorite teams in the World Series?

Exciting, of course, and I loved that New York was in the Series. Though to be honest, growing up I had also been an erstwhile Yankee fan at a certain point (I know, shared allegiances!), but my brother has been a Met fan since a couple of years before his birth, so I felt his pain all these years, and was happy to be sympathetically inclined. However, there was no doubt in my mind at all — my heart and head were with the Royals, and devoted as I am to Kansas City, I was thrilled to be part of that excitement.

Last year, the Kansas City Symphony played the National Anthem in Game 6 of the World Series, a game that was not guaranteed to happen. What kind of experience was it, and how difficult was it to field an orchestra for the performance on such quick notice?

It worked like clockwork for three reasons. First, the adrenalin pump was incredible, and everyone was completely on board immediately, when it was still only a possibility and nothing was confirmed. Secondly, all of us, every musician, was completely excited to do it — it was not mandatory for anyone, and everyone who played couldn’t wait to do it. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the Kansas City Symphony has the greatest staff of any orchestra I know. Our KC Symphony family is the most efficient, enthusiastic, organized, and expert group of people you can imagine, and they made the very complicated look incredibly easy.

You challenged Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony to a bet last year, and this year you challenged Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic to a bet as well. You were under no obligation to do so either time, so why did you?

I did it because you can’t fake things in life — you either believe, or you don’t. I believe in the Kansas City Symphony being vital to the pulse of the city; everyone, and I mean everyone, had Royals fever, we were no different; I believe that the arts are and will become more and more part of what makes Kansas City such a great town, and that the Symphony is a big contributor to that, not only because of what and how we do, but because of the pride we take in our art, in how we play, and in our role in the community; and I believe we could have a really fun time going back and forth with the Philharmonic and my friend Alan, who was a great and complicit partner in all of it. It was a kick, wasn’t it?

How did it feel being on the winning side of the wager this year with the New York Philharmonic?


What kind of similarities do you see between music and sports?

Music is not an athletic event, it is a different experience than watching your baseball team win. Nevertheless, support for and pride in the home team, whether it is the Royals or the Symphony, is exactly the same. The civic mantle we wear, and our roles in representing our community, are the same. The discipline and dedication and training we have to bring to our work, to negotiate a great piece of music or to hit a home run or execute a perfectly timed double play, is the same. The way we are accessible to everyone in the city, regardless of experience, background, or means, is and must always be the same. Being part of a great performance, or rooting for the team during a thrilling game, transports you to another place, and that is the same as well. But most of all, there are the technicalities of learning to play a sport, any sport, well, and there are the technicalities of mastering the mechanics of music. But the goal is to transcend that: in both sports and playing music, the technical considerations have to be transparent, and what you are left with is poetry. And that is completely the same.

"Kansas City" | New York Philharmonic and Joyce DiDonato

Last night we made good on our World Series wager with The Kansas City Symphony: Our friend and Kansas City native Joyce DiDonato joined us for a surprise performance of "Kansas City" from "Oklahoma!" (video: Chris Lee)

Posted by New York Philharmonic on Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Which Royal or Royals have you enjoyed watching in your decade as director of the Kansas City Symphony?

I am not going to say — they are all too great, and what I loved is that the contributions which clinched games came from up and down the lineup, proving that individuals aside, the team really is the star. But I will say that Salvador Perez really earned the MVP title!