February 26, 2022

By Carol Rothwell

As he approaches his 80th birthday and retirement from a long and illustrious music career, Russ Berlin sums it all up with a Frank Sinatra line…”I did it my way.”

His way has blessed thousands of students and adult musicians, as well as those who appreciate excellent performances in the Kansas City area. Berlin grew up in Manhattan, KS and earned his Bachelor’s Degree at Kansas State University. (Have you noticed he frequently wears purple?) Somewhat later he received a Masters from Kansas University and completed course work for a Doctorate at UMKC, stopping just short of the dissertation.

Russ’s first job was teaching band and choral music in Kansas City, KS schools. Soon he was recruited by Keith House, a well-known band director, to join the Lee’s Summit R-7 district as a music teacher for five elementary schools, then middle school, and within a few years Russ became band, orchestra and jazz band director at the (only) Lee’s Summit High School. He especially liked directing the orchestra which earned many awards including performances at several Midwest International Conventions and traveling as far as Vienna, Austria. When a second high school opened, Berlin agreed to start its orchestral program and after a few years –his students having again reached a high level of performance—he retired from public school teaching.

Russ, a modest man, credits the fact that there are numerous excellent private music teachers in the area whose students then joined his ensembles.

Following his retirement from teaching, Russ and Phyllis Hamilton, a church choir friend, began dreaming of organizing a community orchestra. A number of R-7 graduates had expressed their longing to continue their music as adults, and faculty members of nearby UCM (then CMSU) were anxious to be able to perform with an orchestra. Russ and Phyllis firmly believed the community was ready for an orchestra, and assembled a Friends group and Board of Directors. As the result of an article in the newspaper, some 90 musicians expressed interest in auditioning!

The hunch was correct; Lee’s Summit was ripe for an orchestra and the first concert, in 2003, drew a full house, actually a full barn, at Longview Farm. With the help of developer David Gale the show barn was transformed into a temporary concert hall.

The ensuing years have brought continued growth in quality and prestige as the orchestra has averaged about five concerts per year. The largest crowds have been at Powell Gardens’ July 4th event; the most inspiring venue was Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts where the Symphony played a concert to mark its 10th anniversary.

“And now, the end is near, and so I face the final curtain.”

Russ Berlin’s last concert as Music Director/Conductor of the Lee’s Summit Symphony, dubbed “Best of Berlin,” will be March 19th at 7:00 in the Pavilion at John Knox Village. Doors open at 6:00 with a cash bar. The program will consist of some of Russ’s favorite pieces, including Procession of the Nobles by Rimsky-Korsakov, Irish Tune from County Derry by Percy Grainger and selections from Phantom of the Opera, sung by Gloria Helmer and Paul Shrout.

This season has been one of transition as Russ’s old friend Kirt Mosier has shared the baton as Co-Conductor. Mosier recently retired from teaching orchestra at Lee’s Summit West High School and is widely known as an outstanding conductor and composer. His charisma and his circle of his former high school students assure a bright future for the Lee’s Summit Symphony.

Russ is grateful for current executive directors Bob and Candy White, as well as the many friends and sponsors, for the healthy condition of today’s Symphony. When asked to predict the future he believes it’s very bright, that the orchestra will enjoy performing some of Mosier’s compositions, and will increasingly use technology such as iPad scores on the music stand.

As the “Best of Berlin” concert draws near and Russ Berlin approaches retirement his 80th birthday, he is content with his life. “For what is man, what has he got? If not himself, then he has naught.”

He did it his way.

A special fund is being established by friends and former students who have been touched by Russ’s career as an educator and conductor. To contribute, go to www.lssymphony.org and under Donation specify “Russ Berlin Fund.”