‘Symphony in the Flint Hills’ is unlike any other classical music event you will find
By Peter Alexander
The temperature crept into the low 90s and the swelling crowd kept pouring onto a remote hilltop on the Kansas prairie. Eventually there would be about 7,000 people there, more than twice the population of the county. Tents had been set up, Bar-B-Q was served, there were lectures and prairie walks and covered-wagon rides.
Near the end of the day, cowboys drove a line of cattle across the hillside while the Kansas City Symphony broke into the theme from “The Magnificent Seven.”
It was the 11th “Symphony in the Flint Hills,” held last Saturday (June 11) in South Clements Pasture, about seven miles west of the tiny town of Bazaar, KS (pop. 81). An exuberant celebration of the tallgrass prairie, of all aspects of this unique environment, of Kansas ranching culture, of Kansas itself, the event culminated with a concert by the Kansas City Symphony.
If you have never attended an outdoor symphony concert on the prairie with 7,000 other people, you should put “Symphony in the Flint Hills” in next year’s calendar: June 10, 2017, at Deer Horn Ranch. (It is moved every year to give the environment time to recover.) You will never find another classical music event quite like it.
“Symphony in the Flint Hills” is first of all about the environment. The Flint Hills represent a unique ecosystem that has remained tallgrass prairie, largely as it was when the first European settlers entered Kansas. Because the rocky, flinty ground was resistant to the plow, it was never tamed by agriculture, as so much of the American prairie has been.
Every year, there is a theme that is explored in the lectures and talks. This year’s theme was “The Future of the Flint Hills,” something worth pondering in a time of environmental challenges and global climate changes.
(The Kansas City Symphony contributed its own happy note to thoughts of the future: the orchestra has just agreed to a new four-year deal with its musicians. In contrast to some other orchestras, the KCS negotiated the new contract without drama. It took only eight meetings, with no attorneys present.)
While celebrating the environment, the annual event has always featured a concert by the Kansas City Symphony as one of its highlights. (You may read more about the event and its history here.) The concert draws the largest portion of the audience and offers a attractive blend of light classics, familiar movie themes, and more serious works that fit the locale. As conductor Aram Demirjian put it, it’s “a really fun mix of music that you know and music that you’re going to be glad that you know once you’ve heard it.”
The details of that “fun mix” are never announced in advance, but this year it included music from the films Lincoln, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Magnificent Seven and Dances with Wolves. (See the full program, left.) There were lush arrangements by Carmen Dragon of “Shenandoah” and “America the Beautiful.”
Most fittingly, the orchestra played “Prairie Morning” and “Round-up” from Ellie Siegmeister’s Western Suite—an attractive and accessible work from 1945 that is doubtless one of those pieces you’d be glad you know once you’ve heard it. Bass-baritone Dashon Burton, a founding member of the adventurous vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, gave deeply moving and sonorous performances of six of Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs and was rewarded with cheers from the crowd.
I will not write a full review of the concert, because what I heard was not the orchestra itself, but the sound of the orchestra through the very large speakers mounted either side of the stage. The speakers are very high quality, and the sound engineering was very solid, but some details inevitably got lost. Some passages of fast repeated notes seemed slightly blurred, and in other places the wash of sound—being broadcast out to 7,000 people, after all!—covered differences of timbre among the instruments.
As well as I could tell, the orchestra was very tight, the solo parts all very well played. The top trumpet soloist happily lasted the entire concert, which featured exposed high passages in nearly all the film-music selections, with no audible evidence of fatigue. Demirjian led propulsive, exciting performances.
The concert ended, as it always does, with everyone standing to sing along on the Kansas State Song, “Home on the Range.” People joined arms and swayed to the music. This was a communal event of deep significance to the audience, as 7,000 people were brought together by the music, the beautiful vistas, the words of the song. It was a lovely way to end a day on the prairie.
And the skies were not cloudy all day.
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You may see all of my photos of the 2016 Symphony in the Flint Hills on my Flickr site.