Wichita Symphony director Mitch Berman dies after short illness

09/06/2011 6:07 PM

09/07/2011 6:22 AM

Musicians, administrators and supporters of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra were grappling Tuesday with the death of its executive director of 31 years.

Mitch Berman, 58, died Monday night at home, two months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

"It is a big shock," said Daniel Hege, musical director and conductor of the symphony said this afternoon by telephone from Syracuse, N.Y. "We all knew he was terminal. But when he was actually taken from us, it was all very sudden."

Kurt Harper, secretary of the board overseeing the symphony, said Mr. Berman had seemed in good spirits just days before he died.

"Even last week, you wouldn't have known that we were looking at a death this week," said Harper, a Wichita attorney.

Funeral arrangements are pending through Downing & Lahey in Wichita.

Mr. Berman grew up in southern California but fell in love with Wichita after he joined the symphony in November 1980. He came to Kansas after serving as an assistant operations manager with the Long Beach Symphony.

"He just loved the Wichita community and understood what they wanted in a symphony," Hege said. "He understood the people who played in the orchestra and the people who listened to it."

Mr. Berman remained in Wichita, but he never lost his loyalty for his home baseball team, the California Angels.

He had an encyclopedic memory of both.

"He remembered every piece the Wichita Symphony had ever played during the lifespan of the orchestra," Hege said. "I would mention a musical piece, and he'd say, 'Oh, we played that in 1987,' naming the conductor and featured soloists."

It was the same with Angels baseball.

"We were listening to a couple of people talk about the Angels recently, and Mitch finally had to correct some mistakes he'd heard," Harper said. "He was not shy about his passions or his knowledge of them."

Those included Mr. Berman's dog, Augie, who is now being cared for by the box office manager.

"His three loves were the Wichita Symphony, the California Angels, and Augie," Harper said.

Augie is a large dog. Some called him a lab mix. Others weren't sure what mix of breeds made him.

"I called Augie a brown dog," Harper said. "We'd often walk our dogs together. Augie was my dog's first best friend."

Those passions and attention to detail may be one reason that the Wichita Symphony has survived tough times.

Although the musicians agreed to a 10 percent pay cut earlier this year, the orchestra didn't face the financial strains of those in larger cities during the recent recession, or similar struggles in the early 1990s. The Wichita Symphony's budget quadrupled under Mr. Berman's management.

"Because of his leadership, we all learned from him, and that's one reason I believe we will be able to carry on," Hege said. "There's no question we have some big shoes to fill, but we owe it to his memory to keep up what he worked so hard to build."

Hege said he expected the symphony's first concert of this season, with guest trumpet soloist Chris Botti, to go on as scheduled Sept. 24.

"Emotionally, it's going to be tough for everyone," Hege said.

Mr. Berman is survived by his mother from California, who was with him when he died, and two brothers.

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