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A Different View of Celebration at the Station This Memorial Day

Players Reflect on Pandemic Prompted Pivot to Highlights Broadcast

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Above image credit: The Kansas City Symphony's view of the Celebration at the Station. (Contributed | Eric Williams)

Shannon Finney has performed many of the finest masterworks alongside many of the world’s finest musicians in her 26-year tenure with the Kansas City Symphony.

Yet, the Celebration at the Station is special.

“I like the range of emotions,” says Finney, associate principal flute and piccolo player at the symphony. “We play things that are celebratory, but there are also lots of opportunities for reflection. I love that we are doing it in such a public way so people who want to see it in person and be a part of the spirit of the event can. 

“And then it is broadcast. There are people who can’t make something like that (in person) so they get to enjoy it.”

Flute and piccolo player Shannon Finney
Flute and piccolo player Shannon Finney, left, says Celebration at The Station allows symphony musicians to connect differently with the audience. (Courtesy | Kansas City Symphony)

This year, due to a cancellation forced by the COVID-19 pandemic, that will be all of us.

Instead of a live performance in front of Union Station, a highlights show entitled “The Best of Bank of America Celebration at the Station by the Kansas City Symphony” will air on KCPT Channel 19 at 7 p.m. Sunday and at 8:30 p.m. Monday. Access to the broadcast also will be available with a YouTubeTV account on the PBS channel.

Symphony staff knew the iconic musical event had to go on somehow in this time of self-isolation and limited gatherings.

After all, Celebration at the Station is the stuff of traditions. Families and friends gather with picnic dinners, lawn chairs and blankets, frisbees and inflatable beach balls flying overhead. Emotional salutes are paid to service members, military veterans and those who have been lost in service.

Approximately 50,000 people settle in an urban amphitheater created with Union Station dramatically draped in patriotic lighting and the National World War I Museum and Memorial illuminated by an enormous fireworks finale.

Before it was a spot where recent world championships in baseball and football were celebrated, it was a place of music every Memorial Day weekend beginning in 2003.

Kansas City Symphony Bass player Evan Halloin.
“Playing for a big crowd is a great feeling, and I’m always proud to say that this is one of our free concerts each year,” says Kansas City Symphony Bass player Evan Halloin. (Contributed |Eric Williams)

“I like that this program always includes such a range of things, from really upbeat and fun music to solemn pieces which allow us to commemorate those we’ve lost,” says Evan Halloin, who has played bass with the symphony for eight years. “I don’t think any medium is better suited to encouraging reflection and gratitude than a performance by a symphony orchestra.

“I really mean that. Music speaks to feeling, which can be hard to put into words, especially great instrumental music, and Memorial Day is a time for connecting with those feelings.”

The symphony staff began 2020 no different than other years with the 18th Celebration at the Station concert on the calendar.

“We start in January meeting on a regular basis to talk through what the event will look like, how we want to frame it, what is the theme we want to focus on this year,” says Rebecca Martin, symphony artistic operations director.

“At first, we were trying to stay very optimistic that maybe we would all come right back out of this. We would go back to normal and we would be able to hold this event,” Martin says. “Actually it might be a great celebration at the end of all of this.”

When the pandemic forced everything to begin shutting down, the symphony staff began developing alternatives to a live performance.

The idea of a “Best of Celebration” broadcast actually came up in a staff and musician meeting before Kansas Citians began to stay home.

“We were trying to think of ways that we could continue to do something because this is such an important event for us,” Martin says. “How could we still do something for the community?”

The program of this weekend’s broadcast was created from a giant spreadsheet of performance possibilities.

This weekend’s broadcast concert includes performances by Bobby Watson, The Elders, Oleta Adams and Capathia Jenkins, and music ranging from “Danny Boy” to Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.”

Kansas City Symphony Artistic Operations Manager Rebecca Martin
Kansas City Symphony Artistic Operations Manager Rebecca Martin, right, is proud of how the staff takes on Celebration at The Station every year and makes it happen. (Courtesy | HMXLive and Harvest Productions)

“If people take a little bit of time on Sunday, or a little time on Monday, to tune in and see the broadcast and just have a moment reflecting about their time enjoying the symphony performing this concert each year, to me that would be a success,” Martin says.

“I want people to look back and remember, ‘Oh yeah, I was there for that concert, that was so fantastic to see that performance.’ If people take a moment to remember what Memorial Day is all about I would feel we did the right thing.”

Some of most emotional moments each year – even for musicians — are when service members and veterans in the audience are recognized.

“There are always a number of veterans in the audience. I feel like giving them a good experience at a concert is the least we can do to say thank you,” says Halloin. “It is inspiring to think of what they’ve been through. And expressing our gratitude is one task which we all reliably come together on as a community.”

For Finney, and many in the audience, it is the “Armed Forces Salute” that generates genuine lump-in-the-throat moments. The piece is a medley of military songs such as “The Army Goes Rolling Along”, the Navy’s “Anchors Away”,  and the Marine Corps’ “From the Halls of Montezuma.” As highlights from each song is played, veterans are asked to stand and be recognized.

Since only two flutes are needed for the piece, Finney often gets to listen.

“I tear up every time,” she says. “I feel like there aren’t many opportunities where to have 40,000 to 60,000 people together for someone in the military to stand up and be recognized in such a public and honorable way.”

Celebration at the Station
The climax of Celebration at the Station. (Contributed | Eric Williams)

There is a special tribute this year honoring health care workers and first responders. Hometown mezzo-soprano superstar Joyce DiDonato recorded “Shenandoah” and “Over the Rainbow” with symphony musicians recording their parts at home for a finished video that looks similar to the now-familiar Zoom conference layout.

The videos gave the musicians something many haven’t had for several months — a chance to perform.

“Most of us – maybe even all of us in music – are pretty passionate about the role that music plays in people’s lives and I want to be a part of that,” Finney says. “Most of us got into this not to just make the music but to share it.”

Halloin is excited to hear the result of the unique project.

“There is a tremendous amount of unspoken communication which happens when an orchestra plays together, and recording each of our parts alone in our respective houses was a great challenge because we could not communicate as we are used to, with body language and gestures,” he says.

“We all feel strongly compelled to make music however possible,” Halloin adds.

“There are many ironies to the pandemic, and one is that I think we will all come through this period with a renewed appreciation for things we took for granted in the past. Certainly the value of a big inclusive community event like Celebration at the Station is apparent now more than ever.”

Celebration at the Station

“The Best of Bank of America Celebration at the Station by the Kansas City Symphony” will air May 24 at 7 p.m. and again on May 25 at 8:30 p.m. on KCPT, Channel 19. The show, which will also be available on YouTube TV through the PBS channel, features:
Hometown favorites: Performances by Bobby Watson, The Elders and Jim Birdsall reciting a poem by John Musgrave.
Special guests: Performances by MusiCorps and Oleta Adams, John Brancy, Capathia Jenkins and Jim Birdsall.
Honoring troops: Favorites such as “Danny Boy,” “Taps,” “Armed Forces Salute,” “WWI Medley” and more.
Orchestral showstoppers: Kansas City Symphony performing hits like “Saint Bailey’s Rag” and, of course, Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.”

Flatland contributor Debra Skodack is a Kansas City-area freelance writer.

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