Celebration at the Station - A K.C. Classic

Celebration at the Station

Kansas City Symphony

The crowds keep growing and the music is first-rate at Celebration at the Station, establishing itself as the finest event of its kind in the Midwest.


    As a former member of “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band in Washington, Frank Byrne knows a thing or two about patriotic concerts.

    Byrne, the Kansas City Symphony’s executive director, had observed the National Symphony Orchestra’s big musical celebrations like “A Capitol Fourth” that are broadcast on public television. Not long after he came to Kansas City from Washington, Byrne thought it would be wonderful for Kansas City to have something like that. Why nothere?

    Byrne says he had a sympathetic partner in Andi Udris, who ran Union Station at the time and had memories of outdoor concerts with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. Byrne convinced him to let the symphony hold that first concert on Memorial Day weekend at Union Station.

    “The very first year, our planning was quite late,” Byrne says. “I had been talking to some other people around town about this, but the right venue and everything else had not really materialized to do this. Andi was interested in this, so even though it was late, we put the concert on. I don’t remember how many people we had the first year, but it’s nothing like we have right now. People really didn’t understand what it was. After we got some traction with the event, and people came to understand it, it’s become a wonderful tradition. It’s just continued to grow every year.”

    In recent years, the Bank of America Celebration at the Station regularly welcomes more than 50,000 people to gather around the band shell in front of Union Station and on the North Lawn of the Liberty Memorial. Even when the weather forecast looks sketchy, it doesn’t deter a multitude of folks for Kansas City’s official beginning of summer. 

    The 16thannual Celebration at the Station on May 27 is an event that honors the fallen and surviving heroes who served our country, and it’s a responsibility the symphony takes seriously. There are traditions on the program that endure: a sing-along of patriotic tunes like “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “America the Beautiful”; a poignant rendition of “Taps”; the bombast of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” played in its entirety; and “The Stars and Stripes Forever” that precedes the fireworks. 

    This year, the Kansas City Symphony is commemorating two centennials: the end of World War I and the birth of American musical icon Leonard Bernstein. The orchestra’s calendar has been filled to the brim with selections from Bernstein’s catalog in its classical series, and for Celebration at the Station it is slated to perform his Three Dance Episodes from On the Town. Written in his mid-20s, it’s the music of a composer supremely confident in his ability and completely in tune with the jazzy influences in the popular music of the day.

    “In our program, unlike some others you might see on television that are a parade of guests, stars and TV personalities, the orchestra is really front and center, and is prominently featured in the program,” Byrne says.

    The evening really is an opportunity for storytelling, which KCPT is able to bring to a wider audience by broadcasting the concert in Kansas City and in other markets around the Midwest. For some, planning for the next Celebration at the Station starts almost immediately after the lights go off and the last firework goes off on the concert that just took place, making notes after production on what worked and what to do to increase the production value. Representatives from the Kansas City Symphony and KCPT meet to figure out how to match the musical and visual elements.

    “We get together really early on, before even all the music is completely decided, and talk about what the themes will be,” says Angee Simmons, Vice President of Education and Engagement at KCPT. “[For example,] are there particular pieces that would be appropriate for a Vietnam montage? Are there pieces that would be appropriate for the anniversary of the United States’ entry in World War I? Or the anniversary of the Gulf War? When we do that, we think about what’s the right video piece, but also what’s the right piece of music to accompany that video piece?”

    From there, the symphony has a good idea of what music it would like to perform and what guests it would like to bring in. One year it’s the Texas Tenors, another year it’s jazz and R&B singer Patti Austin, or it’s veterans taking the stage themselves to sing with the orchestra.

    But it’s the “Armed Forces Salute” medley of service hymns that often delivers some of the most meaningful images of the evening.

    “For a lot of these people that served over the years, just the opportunity to be there and stand when their service song is played, it’s a very emotional and significant moment, because they think back to a time in their life when they were on active duty,” Byrne says. “Whether it’s some people that served two or three years in the military at some point in the past, or someone like myself who served 27 years in the military, it’s just a great thing.”

    Each Celebration at the Station is a passion project at the symphony, and also a labor of love for KCPT.

    “It’s funny, because we joke about how every year at Memorial Day weekend, our friends and family are getting together for barbecues and trips to the lake, and we’re working 14-, 15-hour days to put on this event,” says Simmons, who’s worked on the Celebration at the Station broadcast from the beginning. “It’s never even occurred to me to be disappointed by that. Because it is such a proud moment when you are able to bring this to not just the live audience that is there in person, but also to all those sitting at home. We often get calls from elderly veterans who aren’t able to attend the event, thanking us for bringing this to the broadcast audience. It’s a really amazing feeling to know that you can be even a small part of this.”

    Byrne recognizes there are people at this event for whom this is their only symphony experience of the year, but perhaps the seed has been planted to explore the symphony further because of it. The way the people have responded to Celebration at the Station tells everyone at the symphony how important the evening is to the community.

    “The goal,” Byrne says, “is having a seamless event so people can come down and know that the symphony is not an unreachable and remote organization that performs only for a select audience, but that we are this community’s orchestra, and that we are available and welcome everyone who wants to hear us.”