Culture

Newport symphony debuts orchestral ode to nature and history

By Steven Tonthat (OPB)
Jan. 20, 2023 8:41 p.m.

This weekend’s world premiere uses music to explore the painful past treatment of Indigenous peoples who once made Oregon’s Yakona Nature Preserve their homeland

Nestled along the shores of Yaquina Bay on the Oregon coast is a 400-acre peninsula that serves as the home to a wide variety of plants and wildlife including Sitka spruce trees, black bears and owls — all living in their natural environments.

The history of the area goes back hundreds of years. Its original inhabitants, the Indigenous Yaqo’n people, thrived as caretakers of the land as described by the Yakona Nature Preserve and Learning Center website.

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The Newport Symphony Orchestra will perform a new piece of music this weekend that pays homage to these original stewards.

Westward expansion from European colonists decimated their community and reduced their numbers from roughly 700 to only 80 by the middle of the 19th century.

Then in 1885, the U.S. Government formed the Siletz Reservation, in what is now Lincoln County, displacing approximately 3,000 Indigenous people from 27 tribes, and the Yaq’on’s way of life was all but lost.

Newport residents Bill and JoAnne Barton bought their property in 2013, intending to restore the area to its original habitat.

In 2018, they founded the nonprofit Yakona Nature Preserve and Learning Center to educate the community on the merits of preserving the land and learning about its history.

Newport Symphony music director and conductor Adam Flatt directs the orchestra in a rehearsal of the new musical piece "Yakona."

Newport Symphony music director and conductor Adam Flatt directs the orchestra in a rehearsal of the new musical piece "Yakona."

Courtesy Lisa Lipton

Last year, they partnered with Newport Symphony Orchestra to create a brand-new orchestral piece to pay homage to the preserve’s natural beauty and the devastating history of its original Indigenous inhabitants.

The result is “Yakona.”

Newport Symphony Executive Director Lisa Lipton says the genesis for “Yakona” began when she started learning about the history of the Oregon Coast.

“There’s a lot of history there, and a lot of it is really devastating,” she says. “There’s no way around that.”

Once the idea was planted for a new orchestral piece, the Newport Symphony needed someone to write it.

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That’s when symphony music director and conductor Adam Flatt reached out to established composer Sara Carina Graef.

Composer Sara Carina Graef and Newport Symphony music director and conductor Adam Flatt. Graef composed the orchestral piece "Yakona" which will premiere at the Newport Performing Arts Center.

Composer Sara Carina Graef and Newport Symphony music director and conductor Adam Flatt. Graef composed the orchestral piece "Yakona" which will premiere at the Newport Performing Arts Center.

Courtesy Lisa Lipton

“When I connected with Sara, I knew she was the type who was going to take this up in a way that would be not only very beautiful, but very meaningful,” says Flatt.

Graef, who was teaching music at California State University Los Angeles, jumped at the opportunity.

“I said to Adam, ‘I can’t imagine anything that is more in my ballpark than this, because I personally have a lot of ties to the Pacific Northwest. I’ve spent a lot of time in Newport,’” she says.

To prepare, Graef spent time with Bill and Joanne Barton in the Yakona preserve, drawing inspiration from its natural splendor.

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“We would lie down on the moss and just look up at the sky and listen to the wind in the trees and feel the energy of the different, special places there in the preserve,” Graef says. “And it was incredible.”

Graef also worked with Robert Kentta, an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, to learn about the history of the Yaqo’n people. The more she learned, the more she wanted to write a piece that honored their legacy and acknowledged their tragic past.

“We have to acknowledge what has happened in the past. And this is a huge part of that puzzle that allows me to have a role in this cultural awakening,” she says.

The Yakona Nature Preserve and Learning Center. The Newport Symphony Orchestra will premiere a new piece of music paying homage to the preserve's nature and history.

The Yakona Nature Preserve and Learning Center. The Newport Symphony Orchestra will premiere a new piece of music paying homage to the preserve's nature and history.

Courtesy Bill Posner

Graef turned in the finished piece at the end of 2022, and the symphony had its first full rehearsal in mid-January.

Newport Symphony is set to premiere “Yakona” at the Newport Performing Arts Center on Saturday and Sunday.

Lisa Lipton hopes that “Yakona” will inspire people to learn more about the history of their region beyond what is taught in schools.

“A lot of that history, I didn’t even know,” she says. “And I grew up partially in Oregon. And I think if we can start recognizing a lot of that history through art, it’s gonna make a bigger impact.”

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