Symphony in the Flint Hills taps into the restorative power of the Kansas prairie

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Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of expanding the conversation about how public policy affects the daily lives of people across our state. Dave Kendall served as producer and host of the public television series “Sunflower Journeys” for its first 27 seasons and continues to produce documentary videos through his own company, Prairie Hollow Productions.

This is generally considered the best time of year to head for the hills. The hills I have in mind are the Flint Hills of Kansas – those wide, open vistas with tallgrass prairie stretching north to south in a narrow strip across the eastern third of the state.

This remnant stand of native prairie, which once covered the heartland of North America, evokes a sense of awe and reverence. After ranchers complete the prescribed burn and the spring rains arrive, pastures are now lush and green and wildflowers are popping up everywhere.

As Jim Hoy, the resident expert on cowboy culture, is often quoted as saying, “The Flint Hills don’t take your breath away (like the Rockies or the Grand Canyon); they give you a chance to catch your breath.

Over the years, more and more people have come to Flint Hills to catch their breath. They drive through the heart of the region on the Flint Hills National Scenic Bywaycycle along the Flint Hills Nature Trail or go hiking on Tallgrass Prairie National Preservewhere they might encounter bison grazing the hills as they once did.

It was on this reserve in the summer of 2006 that the first in a series of annual gatherings called “Symphony in the Flint Hills” took place, merging the natural beauty of the hills with the artful expression of symphonic music.

Saxophonist Paul Winter, known for his unique “earth music”, brought his musical group to perform alongside the Kansas City Symphony. The evening’s performance included “Grasslands”, an original composition by a Kansas-born cellist Eugene Friesenlong-time member of Paul’s Winter Consort.

Five thousand people came to the reserve that day, joining a few thousand additional volunteers who helped with the logistics of moving everyone safely in and out of the prairie. Some of the volunteers organized wildflower walks or bird watching tours, while others helped park vehicles and transport people to the concert site.

As pieces are put together for Symphony in the Flint Hills in 2010, Linda Craghead (left), Emily Hunter and Mike Beam confer. (Dave Kendal)

I was there to follow Emily Hunter, the event organizer, documenting the inaugural event on video, recording it from her point of view. The images were then edited into a people of the plains segment for “Sunflower Journeys”.

When I asked her to describe who might be attracted to this event, she indicated that it would be best suited to those who understand the unpredictable nature of such an outdoor gathering.

“It’s not really an event for everyone,” she said. “It is, at its heart, an adventure.”

The adventure had been inspired by an outdoor concert held 12 years earlier on a ranch near Matfield Green owned by Jane Koger. This event had become legendary. This sparked discussions between a number of different individuals and organizations, eventually leading to the creation of Symphony in the Flint Hills.

The primary goal of the non-profit organization behind “The Symphony” was to provide an experience that gave those who attended a more personal connection to the prairie. The idea was that they would then be better able to help protect and preserve this landscape – the last 4% of tallgrass prairie on the planet.

The day’s activities on the Tall Grass Preserve went off without a significant hitch. An afternoon of educational presentations and guided tours was followed by an evening of world-class symphonic music. Thunderstorms that rolled over the horizon skirted the reserve as the evening performance ended with everyone joining in to sing “Home on the Range”.

Hunter called the event a co-creation.

“The whole thing was completely co-created by each person, animal, blade of grass, breath of air, musical note, ponytail – everything…everything was one piece,” he said. she stated.

Three years later, while planning for the fourth annual gathering was underway, I was surprised to receive a call inviting me to become master of ceremonies. I agreed, even though I was suspicious of my comfort in this position. But I’ve been pulled year after year and am now approaching my 10th year as emcee, only missing one episode since I started.

Annie Wilson, the “Flint Hills Balladeer”, also became a regular participant in the Symphony Orchestra, walking around to play numbers with members of her. Tallgrass Express String Band throughout the afternoon. His encouraging words helped me adjust to the role of emcee, typifying the kindness and consideration that permeates the event.

Cattle transports also became a regular feature. As the orchestra performs the theme from “The Magnificent Seven” or another catchy tune, a herd of cattle appears from above the hill, with cowboys on horseback leading them close to the scene.

It’s not always as controlled as some might think.

“During one of the last few years, the cowboys and cattle walking around the concert site started running really fast,” Wilson recalled. “Guests around me at this point knew the cattle drives were ‘staged’ but thought the riders were certainly doing a top notch job creating an exciting ‘hustle’ for the audience’s entertainment!”

Turns out the cattle had really been scared off and the cowboys were doing their best to contain them!

Stories about real incidents related to cowboy culture in the Flint Hills and other regional topics have been published in the Field diary, which each year highlights a particular theme highlighted by the Symphony. These softcover books are packed with illustrations, including Flint Hills-inspired illustrations.

For those who wish to take more than a newspaper with reproductions of the art home, there is also an annual auction with a selection of original works of art. Profits are shared with the artists and used to help the organization cover the costs associated with the production his mission.

The crowd sings along with “Home on the Range” at the end of the 2021 Symphony in the Flint Hills concert. (Dave Kendal)

Symphony in the Flint Hills organizers chose to move the flagship event to a new setting each year, providing exposure to different locations in the area while providing access to stages that would otherwise not be accessible to the public.

The next, for which tickets are still available, is scheduled to take place Saturday, June 11 at a private pasture west of Bazaar in Chase County. The theme for this year’s flagship event will be “The Weather in the Flint Hills.”

Of course, the question is always: will the weather cooperate?

The last time the Symphony was to be held in this particular pasture, in 2019, extreme weather conditions forced a cancellation for the first time in its history. The night before, a severe thunderstorm brought a microgust of wind that left many of the tents in tatters. With more storms in the forecast, there was no choice but to cancel.

The opportunity to bounce back the following year was dashed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the event to be shelved for the second straight year. Some may have wondered: would the organization survive if something caused another cancellation?

Fortunately, the pandemic subsided long enough in the summer of 2021 for the Kansas City Symphony to return to the Flint Hills. People could go out to enjoy the music and other activities offered in the afternoons and evenings.

“At last year’s event,” landscaper Lisa Grossman noted, “you might just feel the joy that emanates from the whole sunny prairie experience, emerging after the pandemic year.”

Indeed, everyone seemed to be reveling in the freedom to gather on the prairie again, with the Symphony taking place in a pasture near Council Grove. They listened to stories on the Santa Fe Trail, rode the covered wagons, and reunited with family and friends.

Indeed, everyone seemed to be reveling in the freedom to gather on the prairie again, with the Symphony taking place in a pasture near Council Grove. They listened to stories on the Santa Fe Trail, rode the covered wagons, and reunited with family and friends.

Before the evening concert began, they heard the Governor extol the virtues of the tallgrass prairie, which has become another mainstay of the event. They watched the cowboys drive the cattle as the show neared its climax. And they were able to stand together at the end and join in singing the state song.

After the concert, as in previous years, many stayed to listen to stories told around a campfire, gaze at the night sky through high-powered telescopes, and dance to upbeat dance tunes. These post-concert activities are offered annually to enhance the experience as well as to minimize congestion when vehicles leave the parking area.

In the years since its inception, this traveling event has attracted people from all over the world and generated numerous stories in various publications. It increased awareness of the unique nature of the tallgrass prairie and raised the profile of the Flint Hills, leaving a deep and lasting impression on many who experienced the adventure.

I remember when I had to make a decision about where to settle down as a young adult. For several years, I had followed a semi-annual migration back and forth between our farm in Kansas and the Bay Area of ​​Northern California. The serene and spacious views of the Flint Hills have played a major role in reminding me of my roots, and I continue to feel most at home on the beach here.

At a time when we have all been traumatized by the senseless slaughter of innocents at home and abroad, exhausted by a prolonged pandemic, and compounded by continued political polarization, we could all use a dose of the restorative energy that comes with spending time in nature.

Whether you’re planning on attending Symphony in the Flint Hills this week, you might want to get out into the hills and take some time to catch your breath. Stop and soak up the sights, find the places you can explore, and tune into your senses.

The hills really come alive to the sound of music, with or without an orchestra. Go ahead, be still and listen.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own review, here.

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