Cheryl and I went to the Symphony in the Flint Hills yesterday, out in the middle of the Flint Hills in southern Kansas. It is a special place. If you have not been there, I suggest you place it on your bucket list. I have traveled throughout the plains of Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Texas, Wyoming, Colorado, and Montana pretty extensively. I see the beauty of these grasslands that others see as "nothing". The Symphony in the Flint Hills organization started a tradition in 2006....an event celebrating this special land with symphonic music. The Kansas City Symphony, playing everything from Smetana, to Copland to John Williams to Paul Simon sounded marvelous. Out here in the wide open land, classical music brings everyone together for a sunset performance that celebrates the Flint Hills. Special guest Aoife O'Donovan joined the Symphony. She has a great voice and her music was incredible. Her first song was Magic Hour, and it has been stuck in my head all weekend. Her rendition of Paul Simon's song American Tune was also spellbinding, as was the orchestral accompaniment composed by Colin Jacobsen.
Other works of note on the program were two movie themes (The Cowboys and The Patriot) by the incomparable John Williams, who seems to know how the music of America should and has always sounded. Similarly, what would an event such as this be without some Aaron Copland right? For this performance we were treated to the first and second movements of The Red Pony. (Rodeo would also have fit in perfectly.)
But I was not completely at ease today. This celebration of the Flint Hills centered on the settlers who came to this land...who worked hard to make a living here. Visitors could take a wagon ride just like the pioneers did, walk the prairie, and watch a cattle drive. Some mention was made of how the farmers...or sod-busters... ruined the land by plowing under the native grasses...which is true. (I suggest you read The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Eagan.) The iconic music of Copland and Williams expresses the toughness, the "can do" spirit and eternal optimism embodied by the frontier settlers. But that did not sit well with me today. Please understand, I LOVE their music...it is history I am wrestling with. No mention was made today of the "others" ...the Native Peoples who lived here and explored the Flint Hills long before the white man made it his manifest destiny.
The music of Max Richter, composed for the 2017 film Hostiles, better expresses how I felt.
This film shows the West in 1892...the "Indians" had all but been subdued by this time. The music for this film is nothing like Copland or Williams. It tells a different story...sadness, exhaustion, numbness.
Francisco Coronado traveled though the grasslands of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas in 1541. He didn't find gold or the city of Cibola. Later, Stephen Long, explorer and surveyor for the US Army, (Long's Peak in Colorado was named for him) labeled the grasslands the "Great Desert", unfit for settlement or cultivation. But they came none-the-less, hunted the buffalo to near extinction, forced the Indians onto reservations and plowed under hundreds of millions of acres of grasslands. This is not a happy story, and Max Richter's score captures a sense of this struggle.
I stared out at the land all afternoon and evening. I thought about the history of this place and I felt a mixture of joy and sadness. I was enjoying a wonderful day with my wife, listening to great music, looking at incredible views....but the true history of the grasslands was not discussed today, and that didn't sit well with me.
The other constant on this day was the wind. It blew non-stop as it usually does out here.The huge sound system did a great job keeping the music above the roar of the wind. But still, the wind found it's way into the microphones and it too was projected in the mix through the speakers. This was OK with me....the wind somehow seemed to lift my spirits The voices of the past are in the wind. The voices of the past are also echoed in the grass. Maybe that sounds corny, but so be it. I felt the same way visiting Little Big Horn in Montana...the wind and the grass tell the true story.