The glorious history of the U.S. Cavalry often recounts legendary rides of valor in the Flint Hills of Kansas in the times of the “Old West.” Saturday, the Cavalry delivered again by playing a major role in the annual day of Kansas wonder when the Symphony in the Flint Hills came to Fort Riley.
Founded in 2004 with the mission to “heighten appreciation and knowledge of the tallgrass prairie, by providing opportunities to experience symphonic music and place-based education in the Kansas Flint Hills,” the Symphony in the Flint Hills helps many to appreciate what Laura and I believe is our state’s greatest setting.
Usually held on sprawling Flint Hill ranches, where the land forms natural amphitheaters, the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra performs a concert rich in American music with readings that trace life on the plains where “the deer and antelope roam.” Saturday’s setting on the one of the most historic military posts in the nation broke with that tradition.
Told that some long-time concert attendees were not happy taking the event out of lush grasslands to a more civilized setting, we delighted over the selection. We always enjoy exploring the Fort, founded in 1853, that once was home to Gen. George Armstrong Custer, regiments of “Buffalo Soldiers” and today the storied 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One.
We arrived earlier than ever at the concert site on the Artillery Parade Field for a performance by the Commanding General’s Mounted Color Guard. Riders re-enacted the Cavalry skills mounted guardians once used to protect major portions of the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails. Following their display of riding skills, the horse men and women lingered to share their stories and pose for photographs.
One told us he had never been on a horse when he volunteered for the two-year tour of duty. To earn a saddle, and the right to perform, requires mastery of all skills while riding bareback. The friendly young man smiled when he told us he now wished he still could perform riding bareback.
Afterwards, Laura and I wandered through the rows of limestone duplexes that date back to the times of Custer but still provide rustic, yet updated housing for top officers today. In a nearby park, a small encampment revealed life on deployment was far from luxurious. Laura fulfilled a dream by getting quick instruction on playing a violin at the musical instrument petting zoo. I hit the conga drums for the opening licks of Santana’s Soul Sacrifice first performed at Woodstock. We chatted with many friends just as happy to be taking it all in as we were. Any threat of storms dissipated during our wanderings. By show time, the few clouds that lingered only heightened the natural beauty of the setting.
No matter where the symphony performs in the Flint Hills, our intent always is less about watching the orchestra perform and more about finding an empty spot somewhat removed from the large crowd where the music can wash over us as we share in the glory of our state’s great beauty and our love for each other. The 90 minute performance never seems long enough.
A selection from Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, the New World Symphony, and one of my favorites, highlighted the night. However, the rest of the performances helped bring a sense of peace and joy that in our hustling life is far too infrequent. After the intermission, the selections tend to move more to movie themes and classics easily appreciated. Nothing exemplifies that better than Elmer Bernstein’s Theme from the Magnificent Seven, also well-known as the theme to the old Marlboro television ads.
Given the day’s Cavalry theme, the William Tell Overture, the evening’s penultimate selection, had everyone in our area sitting on the edges of their chairs or bouncing on their blankets with imaginary horse reins held in front of them. We all rode along with the music probably better known as the theme to the old Lone Ranger television show. “Hi-Yo Silver! Away!”
The audience singing the Kansas state song, Home on the Range, always brings the event to a close. Thanks to the marvelous setting, the wonderful music and the Cavalry on display, we walked to our car after a delightful afternoon and evening “where seldom was heard a discouraging word.”