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

June 7, 2022 3:33 am

Eager crowds descend on Symphony in the Flint Hills in June 2021, when the event was held near Council Grove. The event had returned after two years’ worth of cancellations. (Dave Kendall)

Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Dave Kendall served as producer and host of the “Sunflower Journeys” series on public television 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 to the hills. The hills I have in mind are the Flint Hills of Kansas — those broad, open vistas with tallgrass prairie stretching north and south in a narrow band across the eastern third of the state.

This remaining stand of native prairie, which once covered the heart of North America, evokes a sense of awe and reverence. After ranchers have completed prescribed burning and spring rains have come, the pastures are now lush and green and the wildflowers are popping up all over.

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 Rocky Mountains or the Grand Canyon do); they give you a chance to catch your breath.”

Over the years, more and more people have come to the Flint Hills to catch their breath. They motor through the heart of the region on the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway, bike along the Flint Hills Nature Trail or head out for hikes on the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, where they might encounter bison grazing the hills as they did long ago.

It was on this preserve in the summer of 2006 when 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 featured “Grasslands,” an original composition by Kansas-born cellist Eugene Friesen, a longtime member of the Paul Winter Consort.

Five thousand people came to the preserve that day, joining a couple thousand more volunteers who assisted with the logistics of moving everyone safely on and off the prairie. Some of the volunteers led wildflower walks or birding tours, while others assisted with such things as parking vehicles and transporting folks to the concert site.

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

I was there to follow Emily Hunter, the event organizer, documenting the inaugural event on video, recording it from her point of view. The footage was later edited into a Plains People segment for “Sunflower Journeys.”

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

“It’s not really an event for everyone,” she said. “This 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. That event had become legendary. It prompted discussions among a number of different individuals and organizations, eventually resulting in the creation of Symphony in the Flint Hills.

The main objective of the nonprofit behind “the Symphony” was to provide an experience giving those who attended a more personal connection to the prairie. The thought was that they would then be more apt to help protect and preserve this landscape — the last 4% of tallgrass prairie on the planet.

The day’s activities on the tallgrass 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 popped up on the horizon skirted the preserve as the evening performance concluded with everyone joining in to sing “Home on the Range.”

Hunter characterized the event as a co-creation.

“The whole thing was completely co-created by every single person, animal, blade of grass, breath of air, note of music, horse’s tail — everything … the whole thing was all of a piece,” she said.

Three years later, as planning was under way for the fourth annual gathering, I was surprised to receive a call inviting me to serve as master of ceremonies. I accepted, even though I was leery about how comfortable I would be in that position. But I have been drawn back year after year and am now approaching my 10th year as emcee, missing only one installment since I began.

Annie Wilson, the “Flint Hills Balladeer,” also has become a regular participant at the Symphony, strolling around to perform numbers with members of her Tallgrass Express String Band throughout the afternoon. Her encouraging words helped me adapt to the emcee role, typifying the kindness and consideration that pervade the event.

Cattle drives have become a regular feature as well. As the orchestra performs the theme from “The Magnificent Seven” or another rousing tune, a herd of cattle appears from over the hill, with cowboys on horseback guiding them close to the stage.

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

“In one of the later years, the cowboys and cattle coming around the concert site began running really fast,” Wilson recalls. “The guests around me at this point knew the cattle drives were ‘staged,’ but thought the riders were sure doing a top-notch job of creating an exciting ‘stampede’ for the public entertainment!”

It turns out the cattle had really been spooked and the cowboys were doing the best they could to contain them!

Stories about real-life incidents related to cowboy culture in the Flint Hills and other regional topics have been published in the Field Journal, which highlights a particular theme spotlighted by the Symphony each year. These softcover books are full of illustrations, including artwork inspired by the Flint Hills.

For those who wish to take more than a journal with reproductions of the art home with them, there’s also an annual auction featuring a juried selection of original artwork. Proceeds are shared with the artists and used to help the organization cover the costs associated with fulfilling its mission.

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

The organizers of Symphony in the Flint Hills have chosen to move the signature event to a new setting each year, providing exposure to different locales within the region while giving access to scenes that would not otherwise be accessible to the public. 

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

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

The last time the Symphony was scheduled to be held in this particular pasture, in 2019, extreme weather forced a cancellation for the first time in its history. The night before, a violent thunderstorm spawned a microburst of wind that left several of the tents in shreds. With more storms in the forecast, there was no choice but to cancel.

The opportunity to bounce back the following year was smacked down by the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the event to be sidelined for the second year in a row. Some may have wondered: Would the organization survive if something caused another cancellation?

Fortunately, the pandemic eased long enough in the summer of 2021 so the Kansas City Symphony could return to the Flint Hills. People could come out to enjoy the music and other activities offered during the afternoon and evening.

“At last year’s event,” landscape artist Lisa Grossman noted, “you could just feel the joy rising out of the whole experience on the sunny prairie, emerging after the year of the pandemic.”

Indeed, everyone seemed to revel in the freedom of congregating again out on the prairie, with the Symphony set in a pasture near Council Grove. They listened to stories about the Santa Fe Trail, rode the covered wagons, and reunited with family and friends.

Indeed, everyone seemed to revel in the freedom of congregating again out on the prairie, with the Symphony set in a pasture near Council Grove. They listened to stories about the Santa Fe Trail, rode the covered wagons, and reunited with family and friends.

– Dave Kendall

Before the evening concert began, they heard the governor extoll the virtues of the tallgrass prairie, which has become another mainstay of the event. They watched cowboys drive the cattle past as the performance approached 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 kick up their heels to some lively dance tunes. These post-concert activities are offered each year to enhance the experience as well as to minimize congestion as vehicles leave the parking area.

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

I recall when I faced a decision about where to locate as a young adult. For several years, I had been following a semi-annual migration back and forth between our Kansas farm and the Bay Area of northern California. The serene, spacious vistas of the Flint Hills played a major role in calling me back to my roots, and I continue to feel most at home on the range 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 aggravated by ongoing political polarization, we could all use a dose of the restorative energy that comes with spending time in nature.

Whether you plan to attend the Symphony in the Flint Hills this week, you might want to get out into the hills and take time to catch your breath. Stop and soak in the views, find the places you can explore, and tune in to your senses.

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

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Dave Kendall
Dave Kendall

Dave Kendall served as producer and host of the “Sunflower Journeys” series on public television for its first 27 seasons. He also produced documentaries and community affairs programs for KTWU, the PBS station licensed to Washburn University in Topeka. In 2015, he left to form his own company — Prairie Hollow Productions — through which he continues to produce documentary videos. He’s currently engaged in the production of a documentary about the local impact of a changing climate.