22 Sep 2017

When Music Comes Full Circle: Interview with Maestro Michael Stern

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Sometimes a passion doesn’t become a passion until it surfaces in a more abstract way. And that’s how it happened for Maestro Michael Stern.

The Kansas City Symphony
Portraits: Music Director Michael Stern
© Todd Rosenberg Photography 2017

Stern grew up in a musical household, asking for his first violin a few months shy of his fourth birthday. But even with this engagement and passion, he felt convinced that his career would follow on a different path.

“I played music throughout my childhood, violin and piano, but I didn’t think I would choose music as a profession,” Stern explained. “In fact, when I started college I was convinced I would do something else. But even as I was exploring other things, music claimed my attention.

“I continued to play all through college, and even though I graduated with a degree in American history, I was very influenced in my senior year by the book ‘The Grammar of Conducting’ by Max Rudolf, so I sought him out. When I moved to Philadelphia to attend the Curtis Institute of Music to study, he became my teacher.”

As fate would have it, years later Stern co-edited the third edition of that very book with Max Rudolf shortly before he passed away. “So my not-so-direct path to professional music study came full circle in a really rewarding way,” he expressed.

And it’s this passion for music and conducting that has lead Stern to embark on his 13th season as music director of the Kansas City Symphony, 18th season as founding artistic director and principal conductor of the IRIS Orchestra, and guest conductor for the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra’s Season Opening, the New World, with pianist Fabio Bidini.

“There is something quite special about the spirit of the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra,” Stern disclosed “Each time I’ve worked with the orchestra it’s been wonderful, not only for the performances, but because the commitment to, and passion for music is always so real among those musicians.”

2013 Classical concert series, featuring Rachmaninoff’s The Bells and Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy. Performers include Michael Stern, ConductorJessica Rivera, SopranoMatthew Plenk, TenorWeston Hurt, BaritoneKansas City Symphony Chorus, Caroline Robinson, Organ


In addition to conducting the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra’s first concert of its 2017-2018 Halekulani Masterworks season, Stern is set to conduct the HSO at the Taste of the Symphony, on Wednesday, September 27 at 7:00 p.m., following the Farmers’ Market at the Blaisdell Concert Hall.

“It’s special to participate with the HSO and present a sneak preview of the upcoming season to the audience. The season looks wonderful across the board. And the program (the New World) we have chosen is one full of virtuosity and color, with a terrific soloist, pianist Fabio Bidini. So, for many reasons I am hugely looking forward to our week together!”

What constitutes a good live performance? “It’s hard to quantify, but it’s usually evident when it happens, especially to the audience,” Stern explained. “A good live performance should honor the intentions of the composer in the score, technically, of course, but also in terms of the inspiration behind the notes.

“A good live performance should never sound routine. It must engage fully not only everyone listening, but everyone on stage performing. In other words, the performers should approach even the most familiar music as if it’s for the first time, and a listener should be able to hear even the most familiar piece as if for the first time,” Stern emphasized. “And above all, a good live performance should not only keep everyone absolutely in the moment with the music as it happens, but also create a suspension of time, and bring everyone together on the same breath.”


Stern will be on the island for a week, and has a busy schedule planned: