Symphony in the Flint Hills: Music on the Kansas Prairie

Part of the welcoming crew at Symphony in the Flint Hills in Kansas (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Part of the welcoming crew at Symphony in the Flint Hills in Kansas (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

An orchestra leaves the city and takes up a one-night residence out on the Kansas prairie; that’s the annual Symphony in the Flint Hills.

I’d wanted to go for years, but they always sell out by the time I really focus on attending. This year, as soon as sales opened, I pounced.

This region of eastern Kansas is Little House on the Prairie in real life, especially the rolling, largely treeless grasslands stretching far to the horizon on either side of the Flint Hills National Scenic Byway. Less than 4% remains of the 170 million acres of tallgrass prairie that once stretched north-south from Manitoba down into Texas.

Most of the Flint Hills region was never plowed (tearing up these grasslands to plant wheat was one of the major causes of the Dust Bowl environmental disaster) because the chert/flint near the hilly surface is harder than steel. Today the Flint Hills are mostly cattle and ranching country.

Driving through, it only looks like there’s “nothing to see” … the prairie is home to hundreds of plant species, birds, reptiles and amphibians, and 31 species of mammals.

Each year, the Symphony in the Flint Hills puts the Kansas City Symphony in a different location and gives the program a different theme. This year it was held in the northwest corner of the region, hosted by the owners of the Deer Horn Ranch, and the theme was the 150th anniversary of the Chisholm Trail.

As people walked toward the tented area after parking, there were friendly greeters on horseback plus a few reenactors. There were stops featuring a “card” game with profiles of historical figures – I pulled the Ace of Diamonds and read about Texan Ben Kinchlow, one of the 25% of Chisholm Trail cowboys who were black.

All afternoon before the evening performance, there were lots of presentations in multiple tents called the Prairie Pavilion. Taking a hay bale for a seat in the “Blue Wild Indigo” tent, I learned about Native Americans on the Chisholm Trail and in the Flint Hills. There were experts on all sorts of Kansas- and Trail-related topics.

You could take a guided walk around sections of the prairie to learn more about the variety of flora and fauna….

A prairie plants and flowers walk led by a volunteer before Symphony in the Flint Hills Kansas (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

What is that? And that? A prairie plants and flowers walk led by a volunteer before Symphony in the Flint Hills at Deer Horn Ranch in Kansas (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

There are kid-friendly things to do like the “Instrument Petting Zoo” where anyone (not just kids) can try out many of the musical instruments that are played in the symphony orchestra.

Instrument Petting Zoo at Symphony in the Flint Hills Kansas (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Kids get to try things out at the “Instrument Petting Zoo” at Symphony in the Flint Hills in Kansas (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Local astronomers bring their telescopes and gear out for both daytime and nighttime viewing.

Astronomy exploration before Symphony in the Flint Hills Kansas (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Astronomy exploration before Symphony in the Flint Hills in Kansas (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Lots of people took short covered wagon rides to get a taste of travel on a “prairie schooner.”

Most of the drivers seemed to be Amish or Mennonite – Yoder, to the west of the Flint Hills, is one of the largest Amish communities in Kansas.

Covered wagon rides on the prairie before Symphony in the Flint Hills 2017 in Kansas (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Covered wagon rides on the prairie before Symphony in the Flint Hills 2017 in Kansas (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

The Symphony program began at 6:45 p.m., and while I didn’t stake out a seat close to the band shell, it didn’t matter because the sightlines and sound were fine from just about any angle.

I plunked my $5 rented folding chair down “any ol’ where” and got ready to hear a program full of cowboy and Western-related classical music.

The concert setting at Symphony in the Flint Hills 2017 in Kansas (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Settling in to start the concert at Symphony in the Flint Hills in Kansas (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

The special musical guest was Michael Martin Murphey, who admitted that he had “been trying to get this gig for years” and he was tickled pink to be performing in such a stunning location.

The program included staples like Aaron Copland’s “Buckaroo Holiday” from Rodeo, Murphey-arranged versions of songs like “Storm on the Prairie / Ghost Riders in the Sky,” and a specially-commissioned piece, “Variations Along the Old Chisholm Trail” by Howard Hudiburg. Even TV shows got their due, with punchy renditions of “Rawhide” and “Happy Trails.”

Yes, Murphey sang one of his biggest hits, “Wildfire,” and it was magical to hear it at sunset with a soft prairie breeze blowing.

Late in the program was the best moment of all – a herd of cattle driven over the hill behind the band shell while the music soared. It was like being part of a living soundtrack to a Western.

Herd of cattle on the rise behind the band shell at Symphony in the Flint Hills Kansas 2017 (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Part of the performance – a herd of cattle driven over the rise behind the band shell at Symphony in the Flint Hills Kansas 2017 (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

After a pretty hot, very windy afternoon (do take a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen) the sunset was a relief….

Getting close to sunset at Symphony in the Flint Hills in Kansas (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Getting close to sunset at Symphony in the Flint Hills in Kansas (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

There were plenty of post-concert activities including cowboy poetry, stargazing, and a dance with the Austin-based trio Hot Club of Cowtown.

Yes, I left the Austin area where I live to go to Kansas to then end up hearing an Austin band!

Hot Club of Cowtown performs after Symphony in the Flint Hills 2017 Kansas (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Hot Club of Cowtown trio performs after Symphony in the Flint Hills 2017 in Kansas (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

This was the first trip for me in a long time that wasn’t part of some sort of business travel. I felt a little silly flying all the way to Kansas for an outdoor concert, but it was well worth the $90 ticket thanks to gorgeous, achingly green surroundings, and a heartfelt performance by Murphey and the KC Symphony musicians.

As I boarded the plane in Manhattan, Kansas to fly home – still finding bits of hay that had somehow ended up inside my purse – I realized that I’d never even opened the laptop that I’d lugged along with me. That means I truly relaxed in the Flint Hills.

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