When the audience listens to the Newport Symphony Orchestra’s premiere performance of Yakona this weekend, composer Sara Graef hopes they’ll hear the music of something lost and now found, of history and beauty. And of tragedy, too. The commissioned composition honoring the ancestral home of the Yaqo’n people, and the nature preserve the land has become, debuts Jan. 21 and 22 in the Newport Performing Arts Center.
“What I really wanted most to say is to express the gratitude of being in that space and for all the history of what has been there, what was decimated and what has been given back – the natural part at least,” Graef said. “There is just such incredible spirit in that space, and when you are walking around there, you absorb that in so many different ways.”
Set on a 400-acre peninsula where the Yaquina River widens to become Yaquina Bay, the nonprofit Yakona Nature Preserve and Learning Center was established in 2018 by Newport residents JoAnn and Bill Barton. The Yaquina watershed was the home of the Yaqo’n people until they were relocated to a reservation in 1855. Later, “intensive logging destroyed the majority of the region’s Sitka spruce-dominated ecosystems,” according to the preserve’s website.
The goal for the nature preserve is to restore the land and offer it to the public for recreation and education.
Newport Symphony conductor Adam Flatt said the idea for the Yakona musical composition grew out of conversations with the Bartons.
“I found it compelling that some members of the community in Newport had devoted themselves to preserving this unbelievably beautiful tract on the Yaquina Bay in perpetuity,” Flatt said. “To honor the place and the Yaqo’n people who inhabited it for millennia until quite recently. It just came together that we might create something beautiful inspired by this place.”
The January concert will be accompanied by a film montage of photographs of the preserve by Roger Thompson, Rena Olson, and Bill Posner. “It is important to me that we create a new piece of music to go with the images,” Flatt said, “that we don’t accompany it with an existing piece of music.”
Before creating the composition, Graef visited the preserve several times. Walking in the preserve, she said, “everything is green and vibrant and alive.” She noted that in replanting the logged land, the “Bartons tried hard to plant native trees and species – tens of thousands of trees so far. It’s beautiful because there are hills, valleys, mud flats, an estuary. Also, the wildlife has begun to return. The bald eagles have come back, cougars. The first time I walked, I saw a family of baby squirrels.”
Writing Yakona was a challenge, Graef said, the way any new piece of art is when you look at the blank page and wonder, what am I going to do?
“That’s the hardest part,” she said, “because you want to do a good job. To put it down and say these are good enough to sustain the piece…. Then it just gets better and better and better.”
The second challenge is honoring the place, the people, the orchestra.
“A lot of people have put a lot of eggs in this basket. You want to make sure all of them, especially the Yaqo’n people, are honored by that.”