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Symphony in the Flint Hills: The Unlikeliest Composition

By:
SARAH CALDWELL HANCOCK

The leadership story of how the Symphony in the Flint Hills grew from being a far-out concept into an annual celebration of natural beauty and art that draws 7,000 people.

Having a symphony in the middle of a prairie is a pretty crazy idea when you think about it. The logistics are daunting.

How do you identify a site? How do you power a sound system in the middle of a pasture? What musician wants to tote an instrument that cost thousands of dollars into the notoriously unpredictable Kansas environment, and how many spectators want to risk heat, rain or other discomforts? If you can handle all of that, what about parking, restrooms and refreshments?

And even if you get all that right, how do you know anyone will come?

The Symphony in the Flint Hills faced a number of technical challenges and questions when it began more than a decade ago. But the most pressing problems were adaptive: How do you get people excited about a concept the likes of which no one had seen before?

The volunteers who gathered to launch the first Symphony in the Flint Hills in 2006 did it with a spirit and vitality that helped them raise the necessary funds and find the right partners.

They also gave the work back to passionate and competent volunteers who could withstand some heat – plus walk away when the right time came.

In the Beginning

The symphony’s 12th annual event will take place June 10 at the Deer Horn Ranch in Geary County. The event, which sells out each year, draws thousands to the tallgrass prairie. People who buy general admission tickets will pay $90 plus tax for adult tickets and $50 for children 12 and under.

Chase County rancher Jane Koger is credited with the concept for the event. She hosted a concert in 1994, inviting 3,000 people to celebrate her birthday and honor her mother. It tapped a huge vein of interest. Another event, Brass on the Bluestem, came two years later. Many people wanted to harness the magical feeling and experience of another symphony on the prairie, but the necessary planning seemed overwhelming.

Luckily, Phil and Kathy Miller, who had extensive knowledge of building and working for nonprofit organizations, were in attendance. Phil, who passed away in 2015, was a former banker. Kathy had started a hospice and another nonprofit, and both of them had lived abroad, working for an anti-poverty nonprofit. They loved the Flint Hills enough to relocate to Matfield Green from Wichita in 2003.

In 2004, the Millers gathered a group to explore a prairie symphony. The group called itself the Flint Hills Arts Alliance and included the organizers of Brass on the Bluestem, a dynamic woman named Emily Hunter (now Emily Connell) who had convinced the Millers to move to the Flint Hills, organizers of historical events in Council Grove and others. They recruited more people who were interested in promoting events in Chase, Morris, Riley and Wabaunsee counties and in planning an outdoor concert series. By the fall of 2004, the Symphony in the Flint Hills idea was born.

But Kathy Miller says they knew the truth: “It was a wild concept.” For the event to succeed, the planners needed to raise half a million dollars. “We knew we would have to be really clear and have the enthusiasm to make donors feel like this is something they just have to do,” Miller recalls. “Even though we knew it was crazy.”

The argument that led to the initial donation, a $25,000 vote of confidence that allowed the group to hire an event coordinator, was based on the hope that beautiful music in a beautiful landscape could provide economic development. Miller said the support was a huge relief. But the group drew on more than logic to persuade other donors. Miller’s favorite memory is a fundraising pitch at a Sunday evening picnic with a prominent prospective donor and her daughter that invoked the power of the Flint Hills. They were at the highest point in the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve enjoying supper when they attracted an audience. “The cows came and circled us – they were curious! We were all just enthralled with that,” Miller recounts. She and Phil described the event they had in mind. “The sunset cooperated, and we said, ‘This is the finale – everyone will see this,’” she recalls.

Those donors supported the event, but others balked. One prospect stalled for six weeks over a $35,000 presenting sponsorship that Miller thought was “a no-brainer,” then said no. Finding a site also proved difficult. It seemed like a good idea to send out a request for proposals through local newspapers, but no responses came. That led to a decision to have the first concert at the National Preserve, but strict park regulations presented other challenges.

Through it all, Miller says visionary people kept the event alive. Emily Connell, the event coordinator, was one of them. “If you said, ‘We need to throw some seeds out in the yard,’ in a few minutes she would have beautiful flowers planted, with a fountain and a berm,” says Miller. “It could be a big pain – she would come to me and say, ‘I am having the time of my life,’ and I would say, ‘I am not! I am sitting at this computer many hours a day.’ She’s a big-picture person, I’m a nuts-and-bolts person. Her enthusiasm was vital.”

Connell recalls feeling ecstatic. “When you carry something in your mind … it lifts you! It’s a burden of a kind, but there’s a lot of lift in it,” she says. “I could see this thing emerging.”

Connell owes her vision to a fear that the landscape she loves so much was in jeopardy. She didn’t want to see “wind towers on every hilltop,” and realized that people looking at the landscape often saw “unused space” that could be put to better use. Connell knew others with similar worries.

They discussed how to tackle the problem.

“I’m of the generation that was against a lot of things. We were against the war and against racial discrimination and against women as second-class citizens. We protested and carried on against things. I felt like you create a lot of resistance when you are against something,” Connell recalls. She ultimately decided that adopting a more positive stance, one that was for the prairie and for the Flint Hills, would be more effective. She was convinced that informing the audience was an important part of the project.

“Prairies don’t have to do with just microbial life and carbon sequestration, but there is a dimension to this place of something we need. A dimension of an extraordinary kind of beauty,” Connell says.

Connell’s passion was contagious. Cathy Hoy, another early volunteer, worked on the nuts and bolts along with Miller and others. Seeing the passion from Connell and others was meaningful to Hoy, who started volunteering in 2005. In 2004, her sister and nephew had been killed in a plane crash. (“I was so numb and trying to deal with that,” she recalls.) Family members started a foundation in their honor and allowed Hoy to give some to local causes. She pledged “a nice amount” to the Symphony in the Flint Hills and was “determined to make sure it really happened.”

Hoy did whatever needed to be done, which included calling vendors to supply portable toilets and golf carts to ensure the comfort of those who came – if they came – and buying old barrels from an Emporia company and having them painted. (The event uses them as trash cans to this day.) She recalls feeling skeptical and, at times, thinking the undertaking impossible. “It’s just not even imaginable, but Jane had the first impulse, so there was a good model,” Hoy says.

A decision to follow Connell’s instinct and educate the audience about the tallgrass prairie made the symphony more than a musical performance.

It also fully engaged Hoy and her husband, Jim. Both Jim and Cathy are retired from Emporia State University and are longtime promoters of the Flint Hills. An original board member found speakers to deliver seminars at the first symphony, and educational efforts grew with the event. By the symphony’s third year, Cathy was head of the board and introducing the governor.

Education has proven vital to the success of the event. Each year’s theme, schedule of programs and Field Journal – collections of essays and artwork designed to inform concertgoers about the prairie’s and the symphony site’s natural and historical significance – help keep the event fresh. More important, executive director Christy Davis says the educational materials help communicate the uniqueness and authenticity of the area.

 

“You can’t ask something to be something that it isn’t. You accept it for all the glorious things that it is. I don’t want to make it sound like it was easy. But so what? Good things are not always easy.”

Emily Connell

 

“Authenticity is important to the communities. We’re in a place where, because it’s wide-open spaces, it’s rural and remote. We don’t have a lot of population density. What that means to me is we have a significant area with not a large constituency. When it comes to making decisions about this place, we aren’t represented, so we need to build that constituency all over the place.

We want folks to come here to understand what the place is about: ecology, history, culture,” Davis says.

Arts appreciation programs have also enhanced the event. Painting and photography exhibition tents grace the prairie alongside music and educational areas, offering yet another opportunity for audiences to see, understand and appreciate the grass on which they tread.

  • Jason Edmonds, Machaela Edmonds, Steve Edmonds and Chris Edmonds (left to right) sing along to “Home on the Range.” (Photo by Hannah Roberts)

FACING THE MUSIC

The economic development work, educational efforts and the aesthetic experience would have been impossible if the group hadn’t found a musical collaborator. For a time, that was in doubt.

Because the Millers were from Wichita and had connections there, the Wichita Symphony seemed a logical choice. But several barriers proved insurmountable, including the fact that the Wichita Symphony plays only nine months a year. The Kansas City Symphony was in a better position to give it a try. “Someone said, ‘They will say no, but we should ask the KC Symphony before we give up,’” recalls Frank Byrne, executive director of the Kansas City Symphony. “They came in and painted a picture for us of what they had in mind. I was intrigued.”

Miller says the partnership has been successful because the KC Symphony was a willing and full partner from the beginning. Symphony volunteers brought instruments for a pre-concert “petting zoo,” for instance, and symphony staff members lent extensive logistic and production expertise. But she and her husband took some heat for choosing Kansas City over Wichita. Whenever they would go to Wichita, friends and acquaintances asked how they came to make such a decision. Miller says she understood the questions, because Wichitans love their orchestra. “But there were good reasons,” she says. “There wasn’t really any doubt about it. Heart preferences aside, it was a clear benefit to go with the Kansas City group.”

Davis wholeheartedly defends the choice. “I’m just amazed the Kansas City Symphony had the vision to come onboard,” she says. “We have a multiyear agreement with them, and people would be amazed at how much work they put in. They take our educational theme and build a program that’s specific to our event.”

Byrne says the decision wasn’t difficult. “There were uncertainties for sure, on both sides, but we believed in the integrity of the people who were behind this, and we had confidence in our mutual ability to make it happen, and we did!”

SUSTAINED SUCCESS

Getting an event like the Symphony in the Flint Hills off the ground is one thing, but sustaining it is another. The event’s mission hasn’t changed in the past decade, but its operations have. Although volunteers remain crucial, a professional director and other staff members ensure continuity and perform many of the tasks that used to be done by volunteers. More year-round activities are available.

Hoy says one secret to the organization’s success has been that the people behind its creation have known when to step back. “We got the mission right at the first, and anyone who was brought into it has cared about that mission. Most of us were passionate and worked as hard as we could but didn’t cling onto it,” she says. She went off the board a few years ago but appreciates watching the educational efforts she helped develop continue to improve.

Connell also handed off her responsibilities. She says there’s wisdom in “knowing when to stop,” and that a different kind of leadership was needed when the symphony became established. “It’s a different style and sensibility. I don’t have it! I know for sure. It’s an important kind of leadership – not ‘once more into the breach.’” Connell says.

Connell also realized that her vision for the event and what it could accomplish in terms of galvanizing support for conserving the tallgrass prairie wasn’t appropriate for the Symphony in the Flint Hills organization. She says she came to the “hard-won realization” that she could continue working toward her goals in other ways. She remains proud of how the event has helped build a constituency and a knowledge base for the Flint Hills.

“You can’t ask something to be something that it isn’t. You accept it for all the glorious things that it is. I don’t want to make it sound like it was easy. But so what? Good things are not always easy,” she says.

Miller still serves in an advisory capacity. She is clearly proud of the event, but she emphasizes that building the organization wasn’t easy. “After 10 years, I can say the two and a half years was worth it, but there’s a personal price to pay. You have to be aware: If you’re going to start something from scratch that has the potential to be something really wonderful, you pay a personal price. It’s going to take blood, sweat and a lot of tears,” she says. For a while, she thought about the event all the time, dealt with interpersonal issues, worried about money and of course “prayed every night” about the weather.

The work and worry paid off. One measure of success is the event’s economic impact, which has grown to about $4 million a year. Davis says the event also exposes people to the area – people who return for weekend visits , and find that new guest houses have opened in Chase and other Flint Hills counties to accommodate them.

But not all of the benefits of the performance are easy to quantify. “How can you put a price tag on awe?” Miller asks. “How can you say what is it worth to inspire people? What’s the value of getting thousands of people to come and experience a landscape?”

And of course there’s the music. Miller says Koger’s idea was that “she knew lots of people from Chase County hadn’t ever heard symphonic music, and would never hear it, but they would come and sit on the grass and listen.”

Like grasslands, the arts need advocates, and that was part of the allure for Byrne, the KC Symphony director. “We need to be true to who we are as an organization, but also connect the dots for civic leaders, philanthropists, elected officials, whoever they may be to convince them that the arts are crucial to the life and cultural spirit of a region. We must make those arguments for ourselves – no one will make them for us,” he says.

Both the symphony and the prairie benefit from the partnership the audience witnesses once a year. And that audience? Connell says she had a moment of relief when she realized the people who would come to the Symphony in the Flint Hills would be not passive, but hardy souls who would assume the responsibility to stay hydrated, wear sunscreen and meet the event halfway.

“We were just doing a framework. The genius of the place: the beauty, the experience of being out there, the realness of the wind. The whole being in it. All we had to do was frame it and make  it accessible, and give people the enticement of this combination of music and grass and landscape and sky and wind,” she says.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2017 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit klcjr.nl/amzsubscribe.