The Kansas sun sizzles the tallgrass, violin strings vibrate the heat waves. A stroke of the maestro’s baton alights the prairie into the Symphony in the Flint Hills.
This unlikely mashup of cowboy culture and classical music has become a beloved tradition in the prairie of Eastern Kansas. The 11th annual Symphony in the Flint Hills will be June 11 at South Clements Pasture on private ranch land in Chase County, northeast of Wichita.
The 80-member Kansas City Symphony heads west to meet the cowboys for this improbable concert, clipping the scores to their music stands to cope with the prairie breezes. The orchestra’s vast saddleback tent shimmers in the late afternoon sun, chords rising to meet birds atilt on the wind.
Symphony in the Flint Hills is both fundraiser and educational festival to benefit prairie conservation. The local organization partners with the Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2016.
Weeks of special events surround the symphony, from photo auctions to country concerts to folk life festivals. The 79th annual Flint Hills Rodeo will rope ’em in June 2-4 in nearby Strong City.
Day-long activities with art, music, seminars
The symphony day itself is a grand time to scuff through the grass, wandering among the education tents to learn a bit about bison and to brush up on constellations before evening falls. Guides lead prairie walks and story circles, and invite travelers to a raucous “instrument petting zoo.” If you ever wanted to pluck a dulcimer, this is it.
Don’t miss the art tents, with fabulous photos of prairie burn-offs and lone cowboys atop sun-bleached knolls. There’s plenty of time for barbecue and beans, then onto a horse-drawn wagon for a clomp through the tallgrass like European pioneers first braving this landscape.
Of course, this grassland was once Indian, sacred hunting ground for the Osage. They, plus the native Kaw, Kanza and Wichita tribes, were all pushed west to Oklahoma by the U.S. government. The Kaw have recently returned to the Flint Hills, buying a bit of their ancestral land near Council Grove and building a spiritual arbor.
Today, most of the Flint Hills tallgrass prairie is privately owned, but travelers are welcome to wander along on the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway between Cassoday and Council Grove. The 2016 symphony site lies near the byway, a 48-mile swath through the last major remnant of tallgrass prairie in North America.
Digging into the tallgrass story
Hiking trails await at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Strong City. The Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan weaves it all together, with a sophisticated film and prairie overview, from its formation as an ancient seabed to today’s conservation efforts.
The tallgrass prairie, awave with wildflowers and grass, once covered more than 140 million acres from Indiana to eastern Kansas, from Manitoba to Texas. Today, less than four percent of the prairie remains—one of the most endangered ecosystems on earth.
The Flint Hills began as a vast inland sea 270 million years ago, which left scattered limestone and shallow soil behind. Zebulon Pike, of Pike’s Peak fame, christened this region Flint Hills because jagged rocks just below the surface hurt his feet. With the rocks less than a foot down, this part of the prairie was spared the plow.
In 1804, explorers Lewis and Clark recorded “the deserts of North America” in Kansas, “deficient in and of water.”
The prairie renews itself each year through death of the grass, fire, rebirth, growth and death again.
Each summer, a million cattle graze on the Flint Hills prairie grass. By fall, travelers head out to photograph the soaring wildflowers— the prairie supports more than 650 species. Among the tallgrasses, Big Bluestem can soar to eight feet.
It’s the prairie mosaic that author William Least Heat-Moon called “360 degrees of sky.”
Concert and cowboy tableaux
This panorama becomes the stage for the Kansas City Orchestra, tuning up as the day dwindles down. Music rolls out on the wind to human, bovine and equine ears alike.
Midway through, the outriders come into frame, silhouetted against low clouds and an ebbing sun. To “The Cowboys Overture,” man and steer unite in homage to the iconic Kansas cattle drive.
Each concert ends with a sing-along of “Home on the Range,” said to be President Franklin Roosevelt’s favorite song. Dr. Brewster Higley, a native Ohioan, moved to Kansas in 1871 and wrote a poem called “My Western Home.” His friend, Daniel Kelley, picked out a guitar tune for it. “Home on the Range” became the Kansas state song in 1947.
At Symphony in the Flint Hills, a solo harmonica accompanies the crowd for a true cowboy finale, timed to coincide with the sun dipping to dreamland behind the tallgrass.
When you go
Symphony in the Flint Hills
Flint Hills Discovery Center