Western folk singer Michael Martin Murphey’s black cowboy hat and vest look odd against the modern Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
His voice booms across the stage as the Kansas City Symphony follows close behind. Then, there’s a hiccup.
Assistant conductor Jason Seber stops the rehearsal and turns to Murphey, and they talk through some trouble spots. The two-hour rehearsal is in preparation for the next day’s Symphony in the Flint Hills concert. Hosted in different Flint Hills locations every year, the annual show features western music played by a full symphony in Kansas’ tallgrass prairie.
During dress rehearsal on June 9, Seber sits in a small Kauffman Center room backstage and goes through the scores with Murphey.
“This section’s supposed to sound like the voice of God, so make sure the French horn plays as loudly as he can,” Murphey says.
“Oh, he’ll like that,” Seber says.
As they go through the notes, Murphey often sings and hums through sections while Seber scribbles notes in the margins with a worn-down yellow pencil.
The Flint Hills show is a marriage of cowboy campfire songs and flourishing orchestral movements in an unforgiving landscape. It’s a marriage that almost wasn’t and every year requires a Herculean effort to achieve.
In 2006, Flint Hills county leaders approached the Symphony’s executive director, Frank Byrne, about bringing 80 full-time musicians into the hot, windy prairie conditions to perform. They had approached other symphonies and all gave the same response: “No way.”
“The idea of bringing an orchestra into the middle of nowhere and playing a concert didn’t appeal to anyone else,” Byrne says. “But they had such a compelling case and had such passion behind it, I thought why not give it a shot?”
Now a registered nonprofit, Symphony in the Flint Hills Inc. works with county officials and local landowners to host the concert. The show frequently invites an American country or folk artist to perform alongside the Symphony. In 2015, the guest was Grammy Award winner Lyle Lovett.
Although the concert is now in its 12th year, packing an entire orchestra and driving it more than two hours into the middle of nowhere is still a daunting task. It’s a logistic nightmare that takes three days to build on site and months to plan.
A 53-foot semi-truck holds music stands, instrument cases, chairs and more. Fifteen vans transport musicians and crew to the site. A sound company strings up speakers that together weigh more than three tons.
But the biggest concern is the prairie’s weather — specifically the wind. Gusts can easily reach 35 mph, blowing the sound off the stage and musicians’ sheet music off their stands (they have to unclip and reclip the paper to their stands while performing). The stage crew uses multiple apps to track the weather.
The day of the event, Murphey looks like a man of the landscape while it’s Seber, wearing a white-collared shirt, who looks out of place.
Seber walks into the Symphony’s air-conditioned tent behind the stage and sighs.
He slowly makes his way to the back of the tent to his private dressing room, and as he walks, he smiles and cracks jokes to the musicians.
“We should just have the concert in here — it feels so good.”
“I better hear a few yippee-yah-yees out of you.”
In his dressing room, his scores are neatly arranged on a table. Before the concert, he sits down and reviews what he plans to say to the audience, reads over some of the trouble spots in the sheet music and goes through the notes in the margins of the scores.
The sun is hot, and the wind is howling, but by prairie standards it’s as good as it gets.
“Isn’t this just perfect?” asks Richard Matt, 73, from Jefferson City. Matt has come with his daughter and brought two Murphey vinyl records from the ’70s to be possibly autographed.
The eclectic crowd features diehard Murphey fans, symphony enthusiasts and couples looking for a fun day out. The center stage is surrounded by a sea of lawn chairs, and a person sitting at the back of the crowd could barely see Seber’s arms conducting in the distance.
When asked why they came out, many driving from hours away, attendees answer simply: It’s a rare chance to hear world-class music in a beautiful landscape. It’s why general admission seating sells out almost every year.
In the hours leading up to the concert, attendees mill through large white tents that dot the hill near the concert stage, learning about the Flint Hills, eating barbecue and bidding on local art.
But when the music starts, all attention turns toward the stage as the Symphony wows with songs like Aaron Copland’s “An Outdoor Overture,” the “Rawhide” theme song and Murphey’s hit “Wildfire.”
Seber and Murphey share the mic and stage, giving the rapt audience a riveting two-hour show.
As the setting sun lights the Kansas Flint Hills sky with hues of red, purple and orange, more than 7,000 voices fill the air.
The words of the Kansas state song flow strong and happy — “Home, home on the range …” — capping another Symphony in the Flint Hills. It’s how the show ends every year — with tears and hugs.
Violinist Alex Shum probably puts it best: “It’s really like heaven on Earth.”
Jacob Gedetsis: 816-234-4416, @jacobgedetsis