SYMPHONY in the FLINT HILLS — A symphony concert in a pasture? Hmmmm? Concert veterans Matt and Sue R. told us about the Kansas City Symphony’s third annual concert in the Flint Hills of Kansas on June 15.
I love the symphony, but I thought of some drawbacks. Chiggers, mosquitoes, snakes. And Kansas summer weather. It changes from hour to hour. Hot, humid, thunderstorms, lightning, mud, floods, even tornadoes. Take your pick. I experienced nearly all of them at Girl Scout camp……
(Later, I discovered a hazard I hadn’t thought of, though I should have known better. Cowpies! I stepped in one. I worried about the other possible calamities for nothing. I returned home unscathed without even a sunburn!)
Another attraction was our friends who had a vacation house on Lake Wabaunsee, which wasn’t that far away from the concert site. The lake is interesting its own right because it was built by the CCC crews during the Great Depression, and cabins there housed German prisoners of War during World War II.
This year, the concert was just south of Council Grove, a three-hour drive from our house. The location changes every year for variety and because the audience of five thousand people can do a lot of damage to the land, even if only for a day.
Matt and Sue, the old friends who’d gone to the second annual concert, did the hard work of dialing for tickets, which were sold out within an hour.
To get to the concert area, we walked a mile from the parking lot, hauling our chairs, soft coolers full of food and drink, hats, sunblock, umbrellas, bug spray and cameras. There were wagons and shuttles for those who couldn’t make it on foot. Or were smarter than I was. Our group arrived early enough to sit close to the stage, but Sue pointed to an an area at the top of the hill. She knew that the higher you sat, the better to enjoy the sweeping vista. She was right!
The symphony patrons are seated in front on hard seats that they paid extra for, but the cheap seats are the best.
In the afternoon before the concert, experts gave talks in tents on many Flint Hills topics, such as archeology, Kansas birds, ranching, geology, the prairie grass and wildflowers. You learned something, and you got out of the sun. (More about the Flint Hills below.)
Now, we’ll go live. Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, honorary chair, greets the crowd. The first half of the program features Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (Symphony No. 6 in F Major, op. 68 ) and works by Chadwick and Copland.
As the sun sinks in the west (sounds like a Zane Grey Western), it’s still hot, humid and sunny. Cowboys herd a river of cattle on a hillside as the Symphony plays “The Great Westerns Suite,” a medley of powerful music from four western movies. The setting sun brushes everyone and everything with gold. My eyes tear up as the theme to How the West Was Won fills the valley. I loved that movie as a girl. I still love it. (Spoiler alert) I cry over Jimmy Stewart’s death yet again. “Oh, Linus,” I can still hear Carroll Baker’s character say. Also featured is music from The Magnificent Seven, Silverado and Dances With Wolves. I’m a sucker for every western archetype. Sue later discovered that the cattle drive — so perfectly timed — was not part of the program. We’d thought the arrival of the cattle was choreographed to match the magestic western music. Instead, the cattle had broken free from their alarmed cowboy escorts and headed toward the music on their own!
The sound is huge, but you can still hear the chirp of crickets and appreciate the rolling hills and rhythm of the cattle as they flow across the land. It makes you think of corny phrases like “The hills are alive with music.” Everything is grand. The music, the view, the history. The real tear-jerker is the last song on the program, Ashokan Farewell, the theme from the Ken Burns miniseries, The Civil War. The Kansas State Song, Home on the Range, plays as we prepare to leave. Everyone knows the words…..
THE FLINT HILLS —I’ve lived in Kansas since I was two, but I haven’t spent much time on the Kansas prairie after my days at Girl Scout camp. The Flint Hills are a band of hills stretching through the center of Kansas into Oklahoma, comprised of limestone and shale. Zebulon Pike named the hills for the flint-like chert stone he saw in the limestone.
I studied prairie grass in college botany classes and driven through the Flint Hills at least a hundred times on the Kansas turnpike, which bisects it, but until I walked through the tall grass itself I didn’t realize how beautiful and diverse it is. And it definitely isn’t flat. Geologist Rex Buchanan can tell you by looking at each hill what layer of rock lies underneath.
Prairie once covered a third of the North American continent. The largest portion of virgin tallgrass prairie lies in the Flint Hills, which escaped plowing because it’s so rocky. The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, the first national park devoted solely to the preservation of the nation’s prairie heritage, is 11,000 acres near Strong City.
Not so long ago, the tallgrass prairie reached into eastern Kansas, where I live. Tallgrass prairie once blanketed Mount Oread in Lawrence, the home of the University of Kansas. There’s plenty of rainfall for trees, but fires periodically killed the trees and shrubs. Modern man keeps the natural fires from burning the trees (and the buildings.) Now mature trees are everywhere in eastern Kansas, making it look more like Missouri than it did when Quantrill’s raiders swept in.
On the KU campus, an acre was devoted to the tallgrass prairie that once prevailed there (I don’t know whether it’s still there), but you need thousands of acres to make a prairie. And it’s a living thing, too, made up of hundreds of different species of plants, animals and insects. A fire every now and then burns out the shrubs and trees and regenerates the grass and wildflowers. Lightning used to start the fires. Now, mostly ranchers do.
One April I was driving to Wichita for an Easter weekend. As I passed through the Flint Hills during a controlled burn, huge dark flakes began to cloud my windshield. It was snow, tinged with ash. Ranchers burn every spring, and it doesn’t take long before the hills are green again.
Symphony in the Flint Hills website —www.SymphonyintheFlintHills.org
Interesting websites about the prairie:
Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve — www.nps.gov/tapr
Kansas Wildflowers — www.kswildflower.org
The Nature Conservancy in Kansas — www.nature.org/Kansas
Kansas Wildlife & Parks — www.kdwp.state.ks.us