Solitude. Blue sky. The Flint Hills. Paired with classical music, it was an ideal setting for the more than 1,500 Wichitans attending the sixth annual Symphony in the Flint Hills concert today.
The concert, a pairing of the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra and a group of individuals with a mission to educate Kansans about the last of the country's tallgrass prairie, drew more than 7,000 concertgoers, performers and volunteers to a Flint Hills pasture near Volland on the Mill Creek Scenic Byway halfway between Alta Vista and Alma.
"It is a unique, wonderful event that celebrates the best of Kansas, and it's a very moving experience to come every year," said Beth Harshfield, a Symphony in the Flint Hills board member from Wichita. "It's really a life-changing event.
"So many people in Kansas have never been out here, and it's my opinion that once people get out here they're like, 'Oh, my gosh, we have such a beautiful heritage,'" Harshfield said. "Everybody needs to celebrate what many of us know is here."
Today's events began at 1 p.m. with a local art sale, horse-drawn wagon rides and educational presentations about the tallgrass prairie. The evening culminated in 90 minutes of classical and folk music by the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra.
The idea for the event started in 1994 with Matfield Green rancher Jane Koger, who invited 3,000 Chase County residents to her 40th birthday party, a symphony performance held in a Chase County pasture.
Wichita State University employee Patty McLinden was there. There were no educational tents, no wildflower nature walks, no art shows.
Even though the concert has grown since then from a little gathering in a pasture, there's still a sense of space out in the Flint Hills, McLinden said.
"If you just want to feel something in your soul that you don't feel walking down Main Street or Market or Douglas or some of those major streets in Wichita, this is the place to come," said McLinden, who has volunteered for five years.
"The Flint Hills have a music all their own," McLinden said. "The symphony just adds to it."
Wichitans Russ and Rebecca Penner were first-time attendees Saturday. They wanted to come last year, but couldn't get tickets.
"I read about it, and just thought, 'How cool to go to a symphony concert in the middle of a pasture,'" Rebecca Penner said.
Though many come for the music or to volunteer, for Kelly and Tim Putnam of Mason City, Iowa, the concert meant coming home. Convinced by family members who told them of classical music wafting across a small patch of tallgrass prairie, Kelly, a Hutchinson native, bought tickets.
"I was poised and ready when tickets went on sale," Putnam said. "It's like being home again. It is being home again."
Halfway down a walking trail flanked by dime-sized white wildflowers leading to the concert site, Wichitan Karen Thompson threw her arms open wide. Another Wichitan, LewJene Schneider, had invited her to the event.
Schneider was able to purchase six tickets, so she brought Thompson and four other friends with Wichita connections.
The concert is a rare opportunity for "city to meet the country," Schneider said. "This is a way for city people to understand and appreciate the land."
Emily Hunter, executive director of Symphony in the Flint Hills, said there is a huge interest in the event from the Wichita area, whether as concertgoers or volunteers.
"Like all of us, they are in search of authentic experience, beauty and celebration," Hunter said.