Dean Peter Witte reflects on the success of UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance over modern German cuisine.
Story by Kimberly Stern | Photos by Jason Dailey
Peter Witte arrives for lunch, cutting an impressive figure in the doorway of the Crossroads’ Affäre restaurant. Towering above diminutive co-owner and sommelier Katrin Heuser, who leads him to a window table, Witte points at the street.
“I just found a place to park in front of the restaurant,” he crows. “In front. Where else does that happen?”
Witte, dean of the acclaimed University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance, is bully on Kansas City—and the availability of choice parking spaces in front of one of his favorite restaurants is just the beginning of his love affair.
“It’s a good time to be in Kansas City,” Witte says as the charcuterie board arrives. “People say that about everything here—business, technology, food, basically any enterprise. But it is.”
As head of one of the country’s most distinguished music and dance institutions, Witte is proud of the Conservatory’s continued forward momentum, which has been building since its inception in 1906. Focusing on creativity, performance, scholarship and learning in the arts, the Conservatory has cultivated an international reputation and attracts esteemed world-class professors such as saxophonist Bobby Watson (a Conservatory alum), composer Chen Yi and 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Music winner composer Zhou Long.
“We’re embedded in the fiber of Kansas City’s arts renaissance,” Witte says. “Along with other organizations such as the Lyric, KC Ballet and Symphony, we’re building bridges with future audiences, which will ensure the arts’ vibrancy.”
Since landing in Kansas City in 2008 via Atlanta—where he served as Chair of the Department of Music at Kennesaw State University—Witte has made partnerships and collaborations with a diverse range of artistic, educational and civic organizations a priority.
“Our students perform annually at the Kauffman Center for Performing Arts,” he says. “That’s unprecedented.”
Witte counts amongst his mentors one of his professors in the School of Music of the University of Michigan, H. Robert Reynolds, now at the University of Southern California.
“He taught me how to listen and to take risks,” Witte remarks of Reynolds’ influence on his career. “He always said, ‘Risk making music.’”
One so-called risk Witte is currently undertaking is the Downtown Campus for the Arts in Kansas City. Considered a bold move by many, the proposed campus will be located in the heart of KC’s fast-emerging cultural arts district—attracting students, more high-profile faculty and naturally integrating culture into curriculum. To date, about $32 million of the $48 million budget has been raised.
Although Witte thrives on his job as head of the Conservatory, he misses teaching. He headed back into the classroom on Aug. 24 to teach “The Artist in Society,” which addresses three big ideas: arts and social justice; arts as an economic divider; and art for art’s sake. Witte says he’s excited to present the sometimes provocative and always inspiring material—along with guest speakers.
Witte met his wife, pianist and oboist Robin Johnson—“she has perfect pitch”—at the University of Michigan. The couple has two children, Isaac, 16, a budding cellist, and Rose, 12, who takes dance with Michele Hamlett-Weith, a graduate of the Conservatory.
“Kansas City is a terrific place to raise a family, especially one interested in the arts,” Witte says. “It’s just a great time to be here.”
Main Course: Q&A with Peter Witte
Little-known fact about the Conservatory. “We were established in 1906—just one year after Juilliard.”
One thing people need to know about the Conservatory. “Our composition program is a national treasure.”
Date night in Kansas City. “My wife, Robin, and I love Affäre, Bluestem, Rye, Justus Drugstore and jazz at The Blue Room. But we need more date nights.”
Dinner to stay in for. “Robin’s pesto risotto. It’s simply life-changing.”
What hashtag best defines your life? #learning
For more information on events and the Downtown Campus for the Arts at UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance, visit conservatory.umkc.edu/.