Classical for Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Take Note is Classical KC's monthly email newsletter featuring exclusive content, programming highlights, and much more. Explore past features via the links below. View the archive {here}.

Music and remembrance: Events to honor this year's Memorial Day in Kansas City

Celebration at the Station brings together an evening of music and entertainment at Union Station.
Todd Zimmer
Kansas City PBS
Celebration at the Station brings together an evening of music and entertainment at Union Station.

Memorial Day is more than just a long weekend - it's a time for reflection and celebration. Here are ways to recognize and honor the holiday in the Kansas City region this year.

This story was first published in Classical KC's "Take Note" newsletter. You can sign up to receive stories like this in your inbox the first Wednesday of every month.

The tradition of Memorial Day, originally called “Decoration Day,” followed in the loss and turmoil of the Civil War, honoring fallen soldiers by placing flowers on their graves.

National Memorial Day ceremonies date back to 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery. In the following decades, the tradition evolved to remember all who died in military service, as well as honor veterans and reflect on the lives and sacrifices of our ancestors.

Music was present at that first ceremony, reported by the Richmond (Virginia) Dispatch: “At intervals during the day, an excellent band, stationed near the platform, discoursed some sweet funeral dirges.”

The Memorial Day weekend offers many opportunities to listen, learn, and reflect in the Kansas City region and beyond.

Celebration at the Station

The annual “Celebration at the Station,” in front of Union Station, is a free, family-friendly, outdoor event. The tradition started back in 2003, and has always featured the Kansas City Symphony, performing patriotic classics and Americana music as well as military musicians. During its first year the orchestra was led by resident conductor Timothy Hankewich, but since 2006 Music Director Michael Stern has conducted. This is Stern’s final year leading the orchestra at the event.

“We are honored every year to bring our music to this celebration, and to mark this event with you for the fun and for the meaning behind the holiday. It’s a thrill for all of us on stage to honor the solemnity of this day, as well as to share in the festivities,” said Michael Stern, during the 2011 performance.

The program includes works by American composers like John Williams, Aaron Copland, and John Phillip Sousa.

One of the more dramatic traditions of “Celebration at the Station” — and patriotic celebrations nationwide — is the inclusion of Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” with live cannon blasts and ringing bells, followed by a fireworks display.

The work was first incorporated into a July 4th performance with the Boston Pops in 1974, chosen by Arthur Fiedler, and quickly became a popular edition to the patriotic repertoire. But its roots were far removed from any American activity: Tchaikovsky wrote the piece in 1880 to commemorate the Russian victory over invading Napoleonic forces in 1812.

The work has been part of the Kansas City celebration since 2003.

“I’m sure that Tchaikovsky could not have imagined that his ‘1812 Overture’ would have become synonymous with America’s patriotic holidays,” said Stern. “Nevertheless, it has and it’s become an integral part of the tradition of this event.”

With an audience spread across the south parking lot of Union Station and up the north lawn of Liberty Memorial, “Celebration at the Station” is one of the largest celebrations in the Midwest.

The performance is broadcast live by Kansas City PBS and rebroadcast on July 4.

Memorial Day ceremonies

Airlifter Brass, Brass Quintet of the United States Air Force Band of Mid-America, performs during the 2019 Memorial Day Ceremony at the National World War I Museum and Memorial.
National World War I Museum and Memorial
Airlifter Brass, Brass Quintet of the United States Air Force Band of Mid-America, performs during the 2019 Memorial Day Ceremony at the National World War I Museum and Memorial.

The National WWI Museum and Memorial has events and exhibits all weekend, but the Memorial Day ceremony begins at 10 a.m. on Monday, May 27. This public event, which is free to attend, includes a keynote speech by Lt. General (Ret.) Wendy M. Masiella, and ceremonial music from the U.S. Air Force Band of Mid-America Roots in Blue Rock Band, from Scott Air Force Base, in Illinois.
For those who cannot attend in person, the event is live-streamed. You can also view last year’s ceremony.

The ensemble is slated to perform “Lest We Forget,” by CMSgt (Ret.) Larry MacTaggart, and “American Anthem,” by Norah Jones, with SSgt MeLan Smartt performing the National Anthem.

At noon, there will be a bell tolling ceremony, with presentation of colors, a wreath laying, and a reading.

During Memorial Day weekend, admission to the museum is free for veterans and active-duty military, as well as their spouses and dependent with identification, and half price general admission for the public.

35th Infantry Division Band

A military band closer to home is the 35th Infantry Division Band, part of the Kansas National Guard out of Fort Leavenworth, and they perform regularly throughout the region.

This year’s Memorial Day ceremony at Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery is not open to the public, so those wishing to place memorials on gravesites there are advised to do so on Saturday or Sunday.

Do you know of other Memorial Day ceremonies in the area? Let us know.

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen is a freelance writer in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. Learn more at Proust Eats a Sandwich.