I first learned about the Symphony in the Flint Hills 10 years ago as I was passing through Kansas. My schedule was packed so I couldn’t hang around for the inaugural event, but I was impressed with the thought that the organizers were putting into access and inclusion. I vowed I would return for the concert someday. Fast forward 10 years, and that “someday” finally came to pass last Saturday.
The premise behind the Symphony in the Flint Hills is simple. Take the Kansas City Symphony and put them in the middle of the prairie, add a little cowboy culture, and top it off with a festival-like atmosphere. It’s the furthest thing you can imagine from a traditional symphony, and there’s just something about enjoying the music under the massive Kansas sky that makes it all come together. Plus it’s the only symphonic performance I’ve ever attended where jeans and cowboy boots are not only deemed acceptable, but enthusiastically welcomed.
Although the venue changes every year, the 2015 performance was held at the original venue –the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, just west of Strong City, Kansas. And getting there was half the fun. Once guests checked in and got their armbands, there were three ways to get to the concert site. You could walk the mile-long trail, hop on one of the flatbed wagons or opt for a comfortable ride in a lift-equipped bus. The walk was fun, but not accessible, and the wagon worked for some slow walkers; but it’s nice that accessible transportation was also available for folks who couldn’t manage either of those options.
The site itself was fairly level, although there were a few bumps here and there, and all of the tents had level access. My favorite tents were the photography and art auction tents, and of course the food and beer tents. The musical instrument petting zoo was fun too, as you could try out a variety of different instruments. It was a kick to watch the little (and big) kids give it a whirl.
Seating was another matter entirely. General admission tickets included seating anywhere on the festival grounds. You could bring your own blanket or chair, or rent a chair there. And of course if you had a wheelchair, you had built in seating. Additionally, there was ADA seating set aside for those that needed it, so folks didn’t have to fight the crowd for a good vantage point.
I have to say that I was pretty impressed with the volunteer effort at the event too. Everywhere you looked there was someone in an orange shirt – more than 800 volunteers – who could assist with just about anything. To say they were helpful would be an understatement. There were also volunteer-maned golf carts to assist slow walkers. In fact, several times I saw a golf cart zip up and offer a ride to a slow walker, without any prompting whatsoever. They were just there to help.
Of course, since you were in the middle of nowhere, there was no indoor plumbing, so porta-potties were placed throughout the grounds. And there were plenty of accessible ones too. Interestingly enough, this group left the accessible porta-potties exclusively for folks that needed them. That’s something that I don’t often see.
And once the sun began to set, the program began. The symphony played a number of selections dedicated to the disappearing grassland, while the narrator read some select poems. It was a surreal experience listening to the strains of music surrounded by the tallgrass prairie, but the real treat came in the second set, after intermission. That’s when special guest Lyle Lovett stepped up on stage. I have to admit I’m not a huge country fan, but I simply loved his cowboy songs, set to the backdrop of the cowhands driving the cattle down to the pasture behind the main stage. Add in the cowboys silhouetted in the setting sun, and a final group sing along of Home on the Range and you have the fitting end to a near perfect day.
All in all it was a bucket-list evening. And the great thing about it is that they will do it all again next year. Sure, the venue will be different, and they will most likely have another guest star, but I guarantee you the experience will be equally unforgettable. So put it on your calendar and snap up a few tickets when they are released next spring. They go quickly, so watch the Symphony in the Flint Hills website for the release date.
I guarantee you – you won’t be disappointed!