In years past, Bill and Julia McBride turned to their tallgrass prairie backyard in Matfield Green, Kan., to hear the Kansas City Symphony echoing across the Flint Hills.
But this year, the McBrides made a two-hour trek north to Fort Riley, the northeastern Kansas Army base where Civil War figure Maj. Gen. George Custer once lived. The base hosted this year’s Symphony in the Flint Hills, an annual performance – now in its eighth year – that brings one of the city’s premiere arts organizations to the middle of Kansas.
“The Symphony started down by Matfield Green,” Bill McBride said. Though it was much smaller at the time, he added, “we feel a lot of ownership or connection with the event.”
“We all get together, and thousands of people, through the arts, celebrate community,” added Julia McBride.
The turnout this year was reminiscent of recent performances, which sell out soon after tickets are available. The fort’s grounds were flooded by hundreds of picnic blankets and lawn chairs set out in anticipation of the Symphony’s arrival onstage. But before a single note echoed from the white band shell, military families roamed the fields with visitors from out of town, taking in the tradition of the 160-year-old grounds.
Hours before the Symphony began to tune up, country music blasting through speakers across a back field served as a backdrop for the Commanding General’s Mounted Color Guard. The riders, decked out in Civil War costumes, fired guns and jousted with swords as they weaved their horses around one another in intricate patterns.
Sasha Deas, a private first class from Texas, guided her quarterhorse, Chico, in formation with the Mounted Color Guard to a loudly cheering crowd sitting on bleachers surrounding the grassy area that was lined with jumps and hurdles.
“We’re out here doing a demo, showing how the horsemen back in the days trained and basically bonded with their horses,” she said.
Deas herself remembers playing the viola as a girl. And just a few yards away, children who were about Deas’ age when she started out in an orchestra were tapping on bongo drums, dragging bows across cello strings and blowing through the mouthpieces of flutes – all under the supervision of music instructors from Flint Hills Music, which sells instruments and gives lessons in Emporia, Kan.
Mary Schwab looked on as her granddaughter, 10-year-old Abbie Rosauer, tried her hand at the clarinet with PJ Stephenson of Flint Hills Music. The store had set up what they were calling an “instrument petting zoo” underneath one of several white tents on the field, offering quick lessons to young children who wandered by.
Abbie’s mother, Shannon Rosauer, knows what it takes to get children interested in learning to play an instrument. She’s the assistant director of a small performing arts center in Junction City, and she was gathering inspiration for her own instrument petting zoo at an upcoming event she was planning.
She’s also well-versed in the historic significance of the base. Rosauer was stationed at Fort Riley with her husband from 2003 to 2007, but they now call Junction City home. For her, the symphony has been a family affair for years – so much so that part of her family drove 150 miles from Lincoln, Neb., to be there.
“I’m so glad they chose Fort Riley for this year’s (Symphony) because it’s a different venue,” she said. “It’s never been in any kind of urban, populated venue. Fort Riley has such an important history to the Flint Hills.”
Down a trail that led away from the field to a wide, leafy boulevard of officers’ homes, people relaxed on screened-off wraparound porches. A giant “Welcome Home” ribbon adorned the front of Lt. Col. Charles Stamm’s house, a bright yellow reminder of the group from Fort Riley who had just returned home from overseas the day before.
Men and women in Civil War-era costumes shepherded lines of visitors along the sidewalks into some of the more famous homes open for tours. Brenda Werner was one of those costumed volunteers – complete with a bonnet and long skirt – standing in front of the more than 100-year-old home of Maj. Gen. Funk, the commanding general of Fort Riley. Werner is the president of the Historical and Archaeological Society of Fort Riley, and she spent 21 years serving as a helicopter pilot.
“I’m a retiree, so I’ve been all over the world,” she said. “I think the people in this area are some of the nicest in any place I’ve ever been. The beauty of the art and the music, and being able to incorporate the history of Fort Riley in this area here – it’s taking two great things and combining them.”
“It’s like cake and ice cream,” she added, chuckling. “Cookies and milk.”
Red-shirted volunteers roamed the grounds, offering up directions and pointing to much-needed water tanks as the sun began to peek out from behind an overcast sky. Lettie Karlson, maps in hand, was signed up to volunteer this year – her first – by her brother, who’s been volunteering on the garbage detail at the event for eight years now.
“It’s wonderful, wonderful,” Karlson said, smiling. “Last year we were out on the Flint Hills, this year we’re here in the fort – it’s history. Gosh, 1880s to now? It’s wonderful.”
“I mean, I’d like to go to Kansas City, and get them all to come to Kansas City, too, but some of them can’t make it to Kansas City for all the symphonies, and they can make it here,” she added.
That’s a big part of what Aram Demirjian, assistant conductor of the Kansas City Symphony, had in mind when the musicians travel en masse to put on the show each summer.
“The performance is the culmination of everything else that has to happen – the educational events, the reenactments, the activities,” Demirjian said with a nod toward the grounds beyond the band shell. “There are unique challenges that come with taking an orchestra and moving it two hours out of town, but you just have to look at the 7,000 people that are sitting out there. These are 7,000 people here for music. There’s no amount of extra work that isn’t worth that.”
And though not everyone can make an hours-long journey to see a symphony orchestra, everyone deserves to have that chance, Demirjian said.
“I think the service an orchestra performs for a community is changing. We are really called upon as artists to bring the art, to bring our music out into the community,” he said. “It can be a life changing experience,” he said.
A hush settled over the crowd as Demirjian took the stage after a brief rain scare. With the clouds cleared and an orange sunset filling the sky, the musicians jumped into motion.
“As a Kansan now, thsere’s nothing more powerful than six or seven thousand people singing ‘Home on the Range,’” Julia McBride said. “I come for that more than almost anything else.”
That’s just how it all came to a close – with thousands of voices joining into the chorus so well known in this part of the country.