Kathy Miller saw the Symphony in the Flint Hills come full circle Saturday.
Miller and a small team of Flint Hills supporters began the framework nearly 15 years ago for what would become an annual symphonic concert in the heart of the tallgrass prairie. The Symphony in the Flint Hills celebrated its 10-year anniversary Saturday at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.
“I’m thrilled that so many people have stepped up,” Miller said. “You could never have envisioned this 10 years ago.”
The preserve – an 11,000-acre swath of rolling prairie north of Strong City – hosted the Kansas City Symphony and about 7,500 attendees on Saturday. The Symphony in the Flint Hills, a nonprofit organization out of Cottonwood Falls, aims to heighten appreciation and knowledge of the tallgrass prairie by bringing people to the hills to experience it first-hand.
It hosts the concert at a new location each summer, but Saturday’s event returned to the preserve in Chase County for the second time since 2006.
“It was a beautiful evening,” former U.S. Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum Baker said of the 2006 concert. “I never would have dreamed I would see this crowd, like today, still, 10 years hence.
“The hills are alive,” she said to the audience, “with the sound of wind and the sound of music.”
In the days leading up to the concert, symphony organizers kept their eyes on the sky and recruited the help of the National Weather Service to monitor the radar. Throughout the day, meteorologists provided weather updates, and by 9:30 a.m. Saturday, ticket holders received a text message alerting them that the symphony was on.
Still, concertgoers packed ponchos, rain boots and umbrellas in case of showers throughout the day.
Gates opened at 1 p.m., but patrons were slow to arrive until gray clouds parted to sunshine in the early afternoon. Before the evening concert, attendees went on nature walks through the prairie, bid on artwork, played instruments in the “petting zoo” and visited education tents.
This year’s theme was “Grasslands of the World,” which incorporated major grazing areas from five continents in the symphony’s education programs and music. In a partnership with the preserve, the Nature Conservancy in Kansas brought in speakers from around the world.
Volunteers Sue and Rick Rutledge of Springfield, Mo., attended the first concert at the preserve 10 years ago and on Saturday attended their fifth.
“You have your camera, but when you take your picture, you get like ‘that much,’ ” Rick Rutledge said, making a small frame with his fingers. “And you try to tell someone and explain it them, but you just can’t explain. … You gotta be there. You have to experience it.”
Grammy Award-winning musician Lyle Lovett, a supporter of the tallgrass prairie, returned to the Symphony in the Flint Hills on Saturday; he performed at the five-year anniversary near Bazaar.
“There’s definitely something to be said for keeping the place the way it is,” Lovett said during a rehearsal Saturday afternoon. “Not a whole lot of people know about it.”
In traditional fashion, outriders led a herd of cattle over the ridge as the symphony came to a close.
As the sun set, the audience joined together to sing “Home on the Range.”
“It’s been amazing,” said Kyle Goerl of Wichita. “This is definitely Kansas at its best.”
Miller has attended every concert since helping to organize the first one.
“If we get enough people to really come and enjoy and love this place,” she said, “then it will be important to them to make sure it gets protected and taken care of for future generations.”