Portland Columbia Symphony Realm of Nature Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

Newport Symphony premiere of ‘Yakona’ honors nature preserve and its Indigenous people

Composer Sara Graef says her piece strives to express gratitude for the spirit of the 400-acre space, “what was decimated and what has been given back.”

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A family of black bears is among the wildlife -- along with elk, owls, bald eagles, and bobcats – found in the Yakona Nature Preserve. A montage of photographs shot in the preserve by Rena Olson, Roger Thompson, and Bill Posner will accompany the Newport Symphony Orchestra’s performance of “Yakona.” Photo by: Rena Olson
A family of black bears is among the wildlife along with elk, owls, bald eagles, and bobcats – found in the Yakona Nature Preserve. A montage of photographs shot in the preserve by Rena Olson, Roger Thompson, and Bill Posner will accompany the Newport Symphony Orchestra’s performance of “Yakona.” Photo by: Rena Olson

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.

Sunlight dapples the trails in Yakona Nature Preserve in a photo by Bill Posner. Photographs by Posner and Rena Olson will be exhibited in conjunction with the concert in the Newport Performing Arts Center’s Olive Street Gallery.
Photographer Bill Posner captured sunlight dapples along the 5 miles of trails in the Yakona Nature Preserve. Photographs by Posner and Rena Olson will be exhibited in conjunction with the concert in the Newport Performing Arts Center’s Olive Street Gallery.

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.”

Sponsor

Portland Area Theatre Alliance Fertile Ground Portland Oregon

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.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Lori Tobias is a journalist of many years, and was a staff writer for The Oregonian for more than a decade, and a columnist and features writer for the Rocky Mountain News. Her memoir “Storm Beat – A Journalist Reports from the Oregon Coast” was published in 2020 by Oregon State University press. She is also the author of the novel Wander, winner of the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for literary fiction and a finalist for the 2017 International Book Awards for new fiction. She lives on the Oregon Coast with her husband Chan and rescue pup Gus.

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