Guest conductor to lead Kansas City Symphony in variety of styles, including Gershwin

As the Kansas City Symphony continues its search for Michael Stern’s successor as music director, Thomas Wilkins is the next guest conductor to try his baton with the orchestra. He’ll lead a concert of music by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Carl Nielsen and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” with pianist Ray Ushikubo as soloist, March 31 to April 2 at Helzberg Hall.

Wilkins is music director laureate of the Omaha Symphony Orchestra and principal conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. He also conducts the family and youth concerts for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He’ll conduct a varied concert of styles and eras.

The concert will begin with “Hiawatha” by English composer Coleridge-Taylor. Born to an English woman and a man from Sierra Leone, Coleridge-Taylor was known as the “African Mahler” because of his ancestry. He was a well-respected composer, who was received at the White House by Theodore Roosevelt when he was on tour of the United States in 1904.

“The Song of Hiawatha” is comprised of three cantatas based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s eponymous poem. Even before it had its premiere in 1898, the cantata caused great anticipation among London music lovers. In fact, Arthur Sullivan, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame, told Coleridge-Taylor, “I’m always an ill man now, my boy, but I’m coming to hear your music tonight even if I have to be carried.”

After the concert, Sullivan wrote in his diary, “Dined at home and went to Roy. Coll. Music Concert to hear Coleridge-Taylor’s ‘Hiawatha.’ Much impressed by the lad’s genius. He is a composer, not a music-maker. The music is fresh and original — he has melody and harmony in abundance, and his scoring is brilliant and full of colour — at times luscious, rich and sensual. The work was very well done.”

Pianist Ray Ushikubo will be the soloist for Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Courtesy Kansas City Symphony
Pianist Ray Ushikubo will be the soloist for Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Courtesy Kansas City Symphony

Ushikubo is quite the talent, He was a Young Steinway Artist and has won many competitions, including the 2017 Hilton Head Piano Competition and the 2016 Aspen Music Festival Piano Concerto Competition. But Ushikubo is not just a pianist. He’s been known to play both violin and piano in the same concert.

This time, however, he’ll focus on one of the most popular works for piano and orchestra, Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” The piece never fails to delight audiences with its jazz rhythms and gorgeous melodies.

When the Danish composer Nielsen was thinking about writing a new symphony in 1914, he wrote to his wife:

“I have an idea for a new composition, which has no programme but will express what we understand by the spirit of life or manifestations of life, that is: everything that moves, that wants to live … just life and motion, though varied — very varied — yet connected, and as if constantly on the move, in one big movement or stream. I must have a word or a short title to express this; that will be enough. I cannot quite explain what I want, but what I want is good.”

Nielsen decided to call his Symphony No. 4 “Inextinguishable” to express its celebration of the life force. The work is the most popular and certainly the most recorded of Nielsen’s symphonies. Intended to be an affirmation of life, the symphony is a triumphant work that will lift your spirit.

As Nielsen wrote, “Music is Life. As soon as even a single note sounds in the air or through space, it is result of life and movement; that is why music (and the dance) is the more immediate expressions of the will to life.”

8 p.m. March 31 and April 1 and 2 p.m. April 2. Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. $25-$105. 816-471-0400 or

French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet will perform Debussy Préludes on April 1. Courtesy Harriman-Jewell Series
French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet will perform Debussy Préludes on April 1. Courtesy Harriman-Jewell Series

Harriman-Jewell — Jean-Yves Thibaudet

The Harriman-Jewell Series will present French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet performing the complete Debussy Préludes April 1 at the Folly Theater. The Préludes are jewel-like miniatures that include some of Debussy’s most popular pieces, like “The Girl With the Flaxen Hair” and “The Engulfed Cathedral.” You don’t often get to hear all of them performed in one recital by a pianist who is as steeped in Debussy as Thibaudet.

“Jean-Yves has an amazing touch and sense of line and melody,” said Clark Morris, executive and artistic director of the Harriman-Jewell Series. “I just sit and marvel at his playing.”

The series has presented Thibaudet several times in Kansas City, and, according to Morris, he loves coming here.

“Thanks to the Richard J. Stern Foundation, we have a Hamburg Steinway made in Germany that European artists particularly tend to prefer because that’s what they’ve grown up playing, as opposed to the American Steinway,” Morris said. “Jean-Yves loves our instrument. In fact, when he was here last time, he said it’s his favorite piano in America.”

3 p.m. April 1. Folly Theater, 300 W. 12th St. $15-$85. 816-415-5025 or

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