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Michael Stern says farewell to Kansas City: 'The next chapter is going to be brilliant'

Michael Stern at the Classical KC studios
Carlos Moreno
Michael Stern at the Classical KC studios

After 19 seasons, Michael Stern is stepping down as music director of the Kansas City Symphony, with Matthias Pintscher taking over at the start of the 2024-25 season. Dan Margolies and Classical KC spoke with the outgoing maestro, as well as cellist Yo-Yo Ma, a longtime friend of Stern’s, about Stern's time in Kansas City and what’s ahead for the orchestra.

After a 19-year run, Michael Stern is departing his post as music director of the Kansas City Symphony following a weekend of concerts concluding on June 23.

And though Stern says he won’t be spending as much time in Kansas City anymore, it will always maintain a place in his heart.

“It’s been one of my homes, it has been the focus of so much musical effort and passion, but mostly I've had the incredible privilege of surrounding myself with people who want to do something extraordinary,” Stern says. “First and foremost the musicians of the orchestra, the staff, an extraordinary board — and an environment for culture and the arts and music that really is exceptional here in Kansas City.”

For his valedictory appearance as the orchestra’s conductor, Stern has chosen three works that he especially holds dear: Felix Mendelssohn’s “Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Samuel Barber’s Symphony No. 1 and Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2.

Stern became music director of the Kansas City Symphony in 2005. The orchestra’s website praises him for having overseen “a remarkable artistic ascent, original programming, organizational development, stability and extraordinary growth.” For the last four years, Stern has been featured every week on Classical KC as the co-host of a two-hour program showcasing Kansas City Symphony performances over the last two decades.

During his tenure, Stern has also led the orchestra in a series of innovative recordings for the Reference Recordings label. Most recent is a recording of orchestral arrangements of Brahms chamber works by Arnold Schoenberg, Bright Sheng and Kansas City native son Virgil Thomson.

One of the hallmarks of Stern’s tenure has been his championing of contemporary composers. The orchestra has commissioned or co-commissioned pieces by a wide range of living composers, from Chen Yi and Errollyn Wallen to Angel Lam and Joel Thompson. Thompson’s elegy for cello and orchestra, titled “Breathe Burn,” will be featured on another soon-to-be-released recording with Yo-Yo Ma as soloist.

Yo-Yo Ma, Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony following a performance at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts,
Eric T. Williams
Yo-Yo Ma, Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony following a performance at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, June 2024

“In this case, it’s about some form of keeping the candle burning for people’s voices,” says Ma, who has known Stern since they were children.

“Michael is one of the most thoughtful musicians. He thinks so deeply about how to program music and he went through many iterations,” Ma says. "He’s thought about what can I bring to a community that would help enrich the inner lives of the people in a place that he loves so much that’s become his home.”

Stern says he’s confident the Kansas City Symphony will be in excellent hands with his designated successor, whose appointment was announced more than a year ago.

“Matthias Pincher is a colleague, he's a friend, but he's also a musician of enormous impact and somebody I admire very much,” he says.

“I know that he’s going to be full of ideas and possibilities for the orchestra and for music in the community,” Stern says, “and that makes me happy because that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Matthias Pintscher will take over as Kansas City Symphony music director beginning in September 2024.
Eric T. Williams
Matthias Pintscher will take over as Kansas City Symphony music director beginning in September 2024.

The German-born Pintscher, whose five-year term begins in September, has served as music director of a new music group in Paris, the Ensemble Intercontemporain, and the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra in Switzerland. He’s also a notable composer who has written for orchestra, chamber ensembles, piano and voice. Pintscher is a member of the composition faculty at Juilliard.

Stern leaves with high hopes that the orchestra will maintain the upward trajectory it has been on for the last several decades, one in which he played an indispensable role.

“When you are a famous player and you get a great instrument — you get a Stradivarius or a Guarneri — you don't own that instrument,” Stern says. “If you're lucky to touch it, you're sort of taking care of it until the next person will come and pick it up.”

“You do what you love and then you hope that the next chapter brings even more success. And I think that's exactly what's going to happen here in Kansas City,” Stern says. “The musicians of the Kansas City Symphony are exceptional and, because of them, I have every expectation that music is going to be alive and well in Kansas City for a very long time to come. And I'm honored to have played a part in that.”

Dan Margolies is a co-host, The Kansas City Symphony on Classical KC
Sam Wisman is a senior producer for 91.9 Classical KC and a backup announcer for KCUR 89.3