Once upon a storm, Kansas blew into Western New York,¹ and it created some “Dust in the Wind.” The event was part of the Kansas (rock band) Collegiate Symphony Tour, and it was huge fun. Below is the program cover, in which Kansas fans will recognize the icon from the Leftoverture album cover.
Now that I think about it, the cover there was a brilliant stroke: it used imagery from the album that had catapulted the heartland band into fame; Leftoverture, true to its classically influenced name, had used more orchestral instruments than before. Still, Mr. Composer there on the cover looks baffled, and it’s no wonder. An aging rock band with college orchestras on stages across the country?
Because of some issues Kansas and I worked through together, this particular concert event was problematic for them, but it certainly was a win for my college orchestra. At one point during the planning conversations, mostly with Chad and then with Phil, I summoned my courage, drew on the relationship we had begun to establish, and asked really nicely . . . and eventually, Kansas let me conduct “Dust in the Wind” in the concert. Using the collegiate conductor in performance was unprecedented, so I initially did not feel I should share the pic below, but now that the Collegiate Symphony Tour has been history for a few years, here it is.
Below is the post-show pic with some undergrad and grad students, some of which have remained friends.
About the experience
I get annoyed when every routine business matter is labeled an “experience.” I suppose one wants something of an experience in a pricey restaurant, but don’t ask me about my “experience” in Burger King or after a phone call or a web transaction. On the contrary, let me tell you, this Kansas Symphony Tour thing was an experience. There were a couple of relatively minor downsides, such as hoops we had to jump through, and the clueless, irresponsible promotional agency out of Buffalo.² I never sensed anything but a commitment from the band, though: the communications with Phil Ehart and his front engineer/manager Chad Singer were entirely pleasant and agreeable; the rehearsing, musically rewarding; and the concert, just what it was cracked up to be—an exciting, fun experience.
Here is a “behind-the-scenes” video look at another one of these Collegiate Symphony Tour concerts.
For any Kansas “Wheatheads” who might click in here but not be familiar with the Collegiate Symphony Tour repertoire, it involved orchestral arrangements of these:
- Magnum Opus (instrumental)
- Point of Know Return
- The Wall
- On the Other Side
- Hold On
- Dust in the Wind
- Song for America
- Cheyenne Anthem
- Miracles out of Nowhere
- Fight Fire with Fire
- Carry On Wayward Son
#s 1, 4, 9, 11, and 13 were from the aforementioned album Leftoverture; the other songs, from albums that followed in the late 70s and 80s.
Monetarily, this project was terrific for the college orchestras. All the college/university provided was the performance space, with air conditioning/heating and building staff. On the other side of the equation, the college was given 100 free tickets to sell or give away at its discretion. A $2000 scholarship was awarded to a string student, and about $1,000 of free products, to the college—all compliments of the D’Addario company.
Musically: A student player was given the opportunity to improvise opposite David Ragsdale on stage, and the orchestra gained the experience of playing inventive, rhythmically challenging, classic/progressive rock music that most orchestras never touch. I had falsely assumed that the orchestral parts would consist of lots of whole notes—you know, easy stuff, just to add texture and give the college players something to do. Boy, was I wrong! It was challenging music. For rehearsal, I assigned a few pieces to each graduate conductor to prepare, taking the others myself (“divide and conquer”). Tooting my own horn—which I took the opportunity to play in the orchestra, too (who could resist?)—I’ll say here that I was complimented for the preparation of my orchestra. I don’t remember the exact words, but it was clear to me that Larry Baird (performance conductor) and members of the band were pleased by the fact that this little college in the middle of nowhere had taken the music seriously and was better prepared than some orchestras from major universities.
Spiritually: There were some new connections, such as a sense of mission communicated by Kevin, then the college’s eminently knowledgeable, experienced recording engineer. I had hoped to engage founding member Kerry Livgren in a pre-concert Skype dialogue, even though he was not part of this project, having had a stroke. (Things became busy, and I didn’t follow through on that plan.) I had read Kerry’s autobiography Seeds of Change, in which he describes philosophical and spiritual searching that came to rest with Christian belief. He is now a committed Christian believer, teaches a Bible class in his church, and publishes through his own label Kergyma Records—a reference to the word used in the Greek NT for the proclaimed message.
In addition, former bass player Dave Hope was an Anglican priest and now works with that denomination in another capacity. Phil Ehart mentioned church attendance and assured me that even the roadies of the band wouldn’t cuss backstage on our Christian campus. That was nice. Beyond that baseline, I did feel the ethical commitment and entirely above-board dealings throughout the project—which in turn fed my spirit through an uphill battle at points.
Finally: Only a few students knew much about Kansas’ music, but some of their parents did—and traveled to hear the concert. Some of us will never forget the experience of being on the stage of Wesley Chapel at Houghton College in New York—with Kansas.
¹ I refer not to the “Upper West Side” (which is probably six hours away) or to “Upstate” per se. This is not the Finger Lakes area, either. This part of western New York is between the Buffalo-Rochester industrial-technological corridor and the “Southern Tier” which runs roughly (I-86 ran very roughly in spots, until about 2013!) from Jamestown to Binghamton. Western New York is beautiful in the fall, wet and gray much of the year, and often snowy between November and March. Some counties in this region are home to many who live below the poverty line.
² Although this particular concert was in an isolated area, and although it was not well supported by the college faculty and students, I blame the agency for most of the monetary loss Kansas doubtless incurred.