KC Jewish orchestra to play magnificent work by one of the most famous Jewish composers

Kinnor in biblical Hebrew means harp, and in modern Hebrew, violin. It is also the name of Kansas City’s Jewish orchestra.

The Kinnor Philharmonic conducted by its music director, Christopher Kelts, will present “Not Your Mother’s Mahler” June 2 at the Lewis and Shirley White Theatre at the Jewish Community Center. There is only one work on the program: Mahler’s Symphony No. 1.

Jewish orchestras are pretty rare in the United States. The Kinnor Philharmonic was the brainchild of Kelts and Robin Onikul. She is an oboist who is also the chair of pediatric dentistry at Children’s Mercy Hospital.

“I’m going to take you all the way back to 2008 when I started as music director and conductor of the Kansas City Civic Orchestra, and that is where Robin Onikul and I met,” Kelts said. “She was a violinist at the time and a member of Beth Shalom synagogue. I was a member of Ohev Shalom synagogue.”

The two musicians dreamed about founding an orchestra based in the Jewish community, “a cultural enhancement,” as Kelts calls it, that honors the tremendous legacy of Jewish support for the arts.

“So, in 2011 we decided to bite the bullet and form an orchestra … which I would not recommend to anyone,” Kelts said. “We are both co-founders. Robin is actually one of the oboists in the orchestra and I’ve been conductor since. We work really, really well together.”

Kinnor is not made up entirely of Jewish musicians.

“The Jewish aspect has more to do with the orchestra existing within the Jewish community itself,” Kelts said. “But all of our concerts have some sort of religious or cultural or artistic thread that has some Jewish connection. We try to make the concerts as kosher as possible.”

“Not Your Mother’s Mahler” will give the audience a chance to deep-dive into a major work by one of the most famous Jewish composers.

“Mahler has that famous quote that he was ‘thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia among Austrians, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world,’” Kelts said. “Never wanted, never accepted. At the same time, Mahler was very much intrigued with death and life. Probably in that order.”

When it was first performed in Budapest in 1889, Mahler’s first symphony was not well received. It has subsequently become one of the composer’s most popular works. One of the movements has a distinctively Jewish sound.

“The third movement is called a funeral march, and it’s based on the song ‘Frère Jacques,” Kelts said. “It’s a funeral march between a hunter and the animals, but when you get not even a quarter of the way in, suddenly you’re transported from this weird fairy tale to a klezmer street band. The moment the clarinet introduces the klezmer theme, everybody knows exactly what Mahler’s trying to say. And, yet, I have no idea what Mahler was trying to say.”

Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 requires massive forces, but Kelts will be using a reduced orchestration by composer Joo-Hye Lee. Otherwise, Kelts says, the orchestra wouldn’t be able to fit on the stage.

“We have about 55 members in the orchestra,” he said. “It’s a nice size, and they come from all walks of life. We have everyone from Keith Stanfield, our concertmaster who is first violinist for Opus 76, to Susan Goldenberg, who has been a long-time member of the Kansas City Symphony, to Bryan Busby, who is a meteorologist here in Kansas City but also a brilliant timpanist.”

Mahler can be daunting for first-time listeners, so Kelts has structured the performance to guide the audience through a sometimes overwhelming work.

“Between each of the movements we’ll introduce the movements and their thematic material and try to make the connections with what makes this theme important or how this theme is connected or related,” Kelts said. “How, for example, does Mahler get across this idea of heroism versus sadness in the second movement when he uses a drinking song versus a love song? We want to try to give the audience some kind of insight that can help them have an experience.”

And what an experience this magnificent work is. From the blustery opening to that quirky funeral march to a breathless finale that will leave you feeling exalted, it is one awe-inspiring trip.

“My hope is that those who might not be fans of Mahler would give this a real chance,” Kelts said. “Mahler said, ‘A symphony must be like the world, it must contain everything.’ I think there’s a real connection between the existence of daily life and the music of Gustav Mahler. Everything that life can throw at you, he’s put it into sound. It’s quite amazing.”

3 p.m. June 2. Lewis and Shirley White Theatre, Jewish Community Center, 5801 W. 115th St., Overland Park. $18-$35. 913-327-8054 or kinnorphilharmonic.org.

Violinist Joshua Bell will join the Kansas City Symphony May 31 to June 2.
Violinist Joshua Bell will join the Kansas City Symphony May 31 to June 2.

Kansas City Symphony with Joshua Bell

Michael Stern’s tenure as music director of the Kansas City Symphony is rapidly coming to an end, but he’ll be on the podium for the remaining concerts this season. May 31 to June 2 at Helzberg Hall, Stern and the symphony will be joined by ever-popular violinist Joshua Bell. The concert is inspired by three of the four ancient elements: earth, water and fire.

Starting off the program is a musical portrait of Beethoven called “Flammenschrift” (“Flame Writing”) by French composer Guillaume Connesson. That will be followed by Haydn’s “Fire” Symphony and then three pieces which Bell has commissioned from Kevin Puts, Edgar Meyer and Jake Heggie titled respectively “Earth,” “Water” and “Fire.”

Bell will then perform the Violin Concerto No. 5 by Henri Vieuxtemps, the kind of crowd-pleaser he does so well. Concluding the concert is the Suite No. 2 from Ravel’s opulent ballet, “Daphnis and Chloé.”

8 p.m. May 31 and June 1, 2 p.m. June 2. Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. $29-$115. 816-471-0400 or kcsymphony.org.

Kansas City Symphony — Celebration at the Station

There are many reasons we’re going to miss Maestro Stern. One of them is the annual “Bank of America Celebration at the Station.” With his affinity for American music and winning way with audiences, Stern is a natural for this populist extravaganza. This will be the 20th anniversary of the celebration and will certainly be one to cherish.

8 p.m. May 26. Union Station, 30 W. Pershing Road. Free. 816-471-0400 or kcsymphony.org.

Te Deum

The ancient beauty of Gregorian chant continues to captivate spiritual seekers and music lovers alike. Antanina Kalechyts, a world-renowned expert in Gregorian chant from Belarus, is coming to Kansas City to help Matthew Christopher Shepard lead his ensemble Te Deum in “Sacred Banquet.” This celebration of the feast of Corpus Christi will take place June 1 at Village Presbyterian Church and June 2 at Visitation Catholic Church.

In addition to Gregorian chant, the concert will include music by composers noted for their profoundly mystical works, like Palestrina, Arvo Pärt and Olivier Messiaen.

There will be several other events over the course of the weekend, including a Corpus Christi procession at 1:45 p.m. June 2 from St. Francis Xavier Church, 1001 E. 52nd St. to Visitation church.

Paul Turner, local organist and liturgy expert, will give a lecture at 3 p.m. June 2 at Visitation before the concert. He’ll also talk at 6:30 p.m. June 3 at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

Following that lecture, Kalechyts will give an organ recital on the cathedral’s mighty Ruffati organ. Te Deum conducted by Shepard will also perform. The recital is sponsored by the Kansas City Chapter of the American Guild of Organists.

Sacred Banquet with Te Deum: 7:30 p.m. June 1 at Village Presbyterian Church, 6641 Mission Road, Prairie Village, and 4 p.m. June 2 at Visitation Catholic Church, 5141 Main St. $20-$25. te-deum.org.

Organ Recital with Antanina Kalechyts: 7 p.m. June 3, Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, 416 W. 12th St. Free. kcago.com.

KC Vitas — Look Up!

The big solar eclipse might be behind us, but there are still plenty of reasons to “Look Up!” That’s the name of a special choral concert being presented by KC Vitas May 31 and June 2, 7 and 9 at the Arvin Gottlieb Planetarium.

This terrific choir led by Jackson Thomas will perform new choral works inspired by astronomical phenomena, and, through the magic of the planetarium, you’ll be able to gawk at those celestial wonders as you listen to the music. It’s an ingenious idea and should appeal to anyone with a taste for the cosmic.

7 p.m. May 31 and June 7, 3 p.m. June 2 and 9. Arvin Gottlieb Planetarium at Union Station 30 W. Pershing Road. $30. kcvitas.org.

You can reach Patrick Neas at patrickneas@kcartsbeat.com and follow his Facebook page, KC Arts Beat, at www.facebook.com/kcartsbeat.