Once a year on the prairie

Symphony in the Flint Hills joins conservation with symphonic music

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Aram Demirjian, associate conductor of the Kansas City Symphony, addresses the crowd at the end of their performance. It was Demirjian's second Symphony in the Flint Hills performcance.
Amy DeValut

Boulder’s orchestras like to present nature in their programming. In Kansas, they like to present their programming in nature.

Symphony in the Flint Hills is happening for the 11th time on June 11 in Chase County, Kansas, about eight hours from Boulder. It’s a unique event that focuses on the preservation of the largest remaining area of pristine tallgrass prairie in the country, and includes a concert by the Kansas City Symphony. Every year the event is located in a different section of prairie, with tents to house the many different offerings, culminating with the concert near sunset.

An inspired mix of conservation and music, Symphony in the Flint Hills originated with a 40th birthday party given by Kansas rancher Jane Koger in 1994. She assembled an orchestra for the party because, she said, she always heard a symphony when she was out on the prairie.

Not only does Symphony in the Flint Hills provide classical music with a beautiful backdrop, the event also promotes preservation of the tallgrass prairie, the largest remaining area in the country. Kevin Brown
Not only does Symphony in the Flint Hills provide classical music with a beautiful backdrop, the event also promotes preservation of the tallgrass prairie, the largest remaining area in the country.

Ten years later, the nonprofit Symphony in the Flint Hills was formed, holding the first event two years after that, in 2006. As executive director Christy Davis explains it, “Our mission from the beginning has been to enhance appreciation for the tallgrass prairie. It was organized not by folks whose primary mission was symphonic music, but by folks whose primary mission was conservation.”

But inspired by Koger, a partnership with the Kansas City Symphony has been part of the formula from the beginning.

“[Music] enhances the emotional experience,” Davis says. “It’s one thing to go out and see this open range and beautiful rolling landscape. That’s breathtaking. But then when you set music to it, it’s an emotional experience unlike any other.”

The Flint Hills area — 9,926 square miles in eastern Kansas and northeastern Oklahoma — is a valuable ecoregion because it has never been farmed. The presence of a hard layer of flint under the surface made it impossible for the early European settlers to plow the ground. As a result, the area has been used primarily for cattle ranching and has remained essentially as it was when Europeans first arrived.

The sun sets as the Kansas City Symphony begins to play at the 9th Symphony in the Flint Hills in Rosalia, Kan. at Rosalia Ranch on June 14. Kevin Brown
The sun sets as the Kansas City Symphony begins to play at the 9th Symphony in the Flint Hills in Rosalia, Kan. at Rosalia Ranch on June 14.

Located just west of Emporia, Chase County lies right in the middle of the tallgrass prairie and in 1996, the 10,894-acre Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve was established there.

Each year Symphony in Fint Hills is located on a different site to minimize impact on the prairie landscape. Although the tents are set up starting a couple of weeks before the event, they all disappear the week following the one-day event.

The gates open at noon, and the event includes the symphony concert and a dance that lasts until 11 p.m. Tickets are limited to 5,000, and every year has been a sellout.

So far, efforts to minimize the impact seem to be working. “I’ve been at last year’s site,” Davis says. “It’s getting to the point that you can’t tell we were there.”

Each year’s event has a theme; for 2016 it’s “The Future of the Flint Hills.” There will be five tents to house talks and presentations around the theme, with topics ranging from the history of the region to “Flint Hill Barns,” “Invasive Species” and “Protecting Our Land.”

Aram Demirjian, the Kansas City Symphony’s associate conductor who will lead the evening’s performance, will talk about “The Future of Classical Music”(4 p.m. in the Purple Cornflower Tent). “The way people consume art and entertainment is changing, and we all need to adapt,” he says, providing a brief preview of his talk.

Demirjian is making his fourth, and final, appearance conducting at Symphony in the Flint Hills.

“It’s a truly unique event in America,” he says. “There’s just horizon for 360 degrees, so we really turn nature into our concert hall. It’s an elegant fusion of art and nature and people. You have a lot of regular symphony goers, and then you have a lot of people for whom it’s about this event, and this might be the only orchestra concert they come to all year. But it is one of our most enthusiastic audiences.”

But what, you ask, will the orchestra play? “We don’t publish that in advance,” Davis says. “Every year it’s based on our theme. The Kansas City Symphony, the conductor and our music committee work together to identify music that ties to that theme, and they create a custom program every year.”

How do they keep it a secret?

“It’s a pretty tight group,” Davis says. “We do get a lot of calls, and people are surprised [not to find out the program].”

Meanwhile, at the Kansas City Symphony, Demirjian is willing to give a tiny hint: “The program is going to be a really fun mix,” he says. “Music that you know and music that you’re going to be glad that you know once you’ve heard it.”

On the Bill: Symphony in the Flint Hills. Noon-11 p.m. Saturday, June 11. (Rain date: Sunday, June 12). South Clements Pasture, Chase County, Kansas. (Eight hours from Boulder by car) 6:45 p.m. Kansas City Symphony, Aram Demirjian, conductor. Program announced at the event. For tickets, directions and other details: 620-273-8955 or symphonyintheflinthills.org/events/