Napoleon Bonaparte came close to having the first and last word on the Yakima Symphony Orchestra’s 2018-19 season, “Heroes!” The first piece played in the first classical concert, Beethoven’s The Eroica, was originally dedicated to Napoleon — until he declared himself emperor, after which the dedication was withdrawn.
The first piece in the final concert of the season, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, celebrates Russia’s heroic defeat of Napoleon. For a person who lived only to age 51, such influence to have inspired timeless and heroic orchestral repertoire is notable. Hero to some and tyrant to others, a complex military leader and statesman, Napoleon’s wars and campaigns continue to be studied and his political and cultural legacy endures.
Though the music of composer Richard Wagner was represented only once during the YSO season, on the opening “Heroes & Superheroes” pops concert, his influence was felt throughout the season. To many musicians in the latter half of the 19th century, he was truly a hero whose visionary conception of the “art of the future” was a model and inspiration for composers all over Europe and America.
For others whose music we heard this season, such as Brahms and Saint-Saëns, Wagner was a threat to the very integrity of music as a unique art form, not to mention the national musical styles and traditions they held dear. These composers worked hard to counteract Wagner’s influence, and Wagner’s supporters worked equally hard to diminish their efforts and reputations.
This “hero to some but not to others” duality is inherent in being a hero and something that continued to reveal itself as we progressed through the season, learning the stories behind the music, composers and the times in which they lived. It also was revealed through conversations with patrons about their personal heroes and through our “Pollinators — A Hero’s Life” collaboration with the Cowiche Canyon Conservancy and friends that celebrated the work and lives of pollinators — our community’s tiniest heroes — who may in some circumstances be considered “pests” or undesirable intruders, but whose indispensable work fuels our physical and economic well-being.
Through it all, we affirmed why we need heroes, that in addition to saving or improving lives and inspiring us, per Scott T. Allison, “Heroes elevate us emotionally; they heal our psychological ills; they build connections between people; they encourage us to transform ourselves for the better; and they call us to become heroes and help others.”
However complex the dynamics of heroism may be, the music it has engendered continues to elevate and bring us together. From the first strains of the “Superman March” in September to the final measures of Ein Heldenleben last week, this season of “Heroes!” has inspired musicians and audiences alike.
• This column was written by the Yakima Symphony Orchestra staff. Learn more at www.ysomusic.org.