The Symphony players followed all the rules for this venue. No blue clothing. No open-toed shoes. No cellphones. No weapons.
They, and their instruments, made it past security without a hitch.
And now Mike Gordon, principal flutist for the Kansas City Symphony, stood on an auditorium stage in front of 175 inmates at Lansing Correctional Facility.
“Can I see a show of hands of anyone who has ever been to a chamber music concert?” he asked.
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About a dozen hands shot in the air.
“Oh, wow,” he said. “OK, awesome.”
Gordon wasn’t sure what to expect when he and five of his Symphony colleagues signed up to play for the men in Lansing’s medium-security unit.
Symphony members have performed many places outside their posh home base of Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts — schools, nursing homes, the Flint Hills. But this was the first time that anyone in the organization’s front office could recollect musicians playing inside a prison.
Would the inmates even like the music? It was a legitimate concern. Some of the prisoners admitted they knew very little about classical music other than what they’d heard in movies or elevators.
“The first piece we’re playing for you is a trio written by Joseph Haydn, written in 1794,” Gordon said. “He wrote it for British nobility to play for fun, for entertainment.”
As the music began, the prisoners fell silent and remained that way for the next hour, for the most part.
When two young inmates in a back row started talking during the performance, an older man sitting in front of them turned and scowled. He put his finger to his lips and loudly commanded them to “shhhhhhhhh!” Now and then a guard’s radio would crackle and squawk over the music with chatter like, “The door is closed. The door is closed.”
The surroundings felt surreal to Gordon. He couldn’t help but think that many of these men had done something pretty bad to end up there. Yet here he was, playing classical music in a prison. And there the prisoners were: Rapt. Eager. Polite.
Afterward, inmate Jamie Grube said it was unlike any musical experience he’d had.
“I feel blessed because it gives us the opportunity to hear something different,” said Grube, who is in prison for burglary. “A lot of people don’t care about us in here. They think everybody is the same, what they see on TV, which we’re not. We’re all human beings still.”
Tom Smeed just knew that the Symphony would be a big hit behind these walls. The Overland Park man, owner of Healthcare Practice Management, is a Symphony donor who also volunteers at the Lansing prison where, among other things, he teaches weekly GED classes.
Smeed started hatching the plan for a Symphony-prison relationship awhile back after he befriended David McCune, the prison’s warden at the time.
Smeed pursued the idea after Rex Pryor took over as warden and became the bridge between the orchestra and prison as the idea came to life.
The concert dovetailed with efforts already underway by both groups. The Arts in Prison program at the Lansing facility involves inmates in a host of artistic pursuits, from music, theater and creative writing to yoga and the finer arts of knitting and crocheting. Smeed serves on that program’s board.
A prison concert also fit the mission of the Symphony’s own Community Connections Initiative, which sends players to perform in venues outside the concert hall — performances organized by the musicians themselves.
When Gordon heard about this idea, “Truthfully, it was something that had never occurred to me before.”
To drum up interest for the concert, fliers went up on billboards all around the prison. Smeed did a little one-on-one marketing himself by talking it up to inmates in the yard, the big grassy recreational area where inmates lift weights, run and generally hang out.
Attendance was voluntary, but Smeed was encouraged when one inmate told him that he really liked Brahms.
On Tuesday, the musicians carried their instruments across that same yard on their way to the auditorium. Gordon thought the yard had the casual feel of a college campus, albeit a campus overlooked by a guard tower. Symphony violinist Mary Grant couldn’t help but notice the flowers growing.
Inmates wear blue pants and shirts, which is why visitors are told not to wear blue. (The next day some of Gordon’s other Symphony colleagues asked if the inmates wore orange.)
The players were advised to walk toward the outside of the wide sidewalk around the lawn to avoid inmates walking and running on the inside lane.
At no point during the visit did viola player Jessica Nance feel unsafe, even though she could quickly and clearly see how outnumbered any woman is in the all-male facility.
“I felt that we were extremely well-respected by everyone there,” she said. “By the staff as well as inmates.”
Her most uncomfortable moment had nothing to do with the prisoners. It happened when the musicians walked through the first set of security doors, giant sliding slabs of steel that clanged shut behind them with a jarring finality.
Nance jumped at the chance to play the prison when she got Gordon’s email soliciting volunteers. She found the visit extremely moving.
“For me, the real significance of our CCI program is that we can play for people who otherwise would not get to hear us play … nursing homes, schools, places where you can’t fit a whole orchestra,” she said. “And this seemed like an ideal fit. If there’s ever someone who can’t come to the Symphony it’s people who can never leave.”
Several times during the concert, inmates burst into boisterous, spontaneous applause. And at concert’s end, the prisoners gave the players a standing ovation.
Justin Elnicki, in prison for rape, said he had only heard classical music as background music at Dillons grocery store.
His tastes run more toward Lynyrd Skynyrd and Journey, but as he sat and listened and occasionally closed his eyes, he felt … calm.
“I didn’t really understand it,” Elnicki said. “But I really enjoyed it.”
During the post-concert question-and-answer session, an inmate asked if the musicians could come back. Again, the men erupted in applause.
“I think you’ll see much more of us,” Gordon told them.
Gordon invited the men to come on stage and visit with the players. It created a scene that looked like groupies clamoring for rock stars.
One of the men asked the musicians to autograph a birthday card for his mother. He said, “This is the best thing I can do for her.” Several of the men shared stories of music teachers they’d had in grade school.
One man wanted to know if the players would consider coming back to teach inmates how to play orchestra instruments. Another man who raps wondered if inmates could ever perform with the entire Kansas City Symphony.
And then there was the inmate already looking forward to the next concert who asked, “Can you bring bagpipes next time?”