Last October, the Yakima Symphony Orchestra resurrected a tradition buried 15 years ago but remembered by many with great fondness ever since: the annual Halloween orchestra program.
The tradition continues this Saturday with a family-oriented matinee concert (at 4 p.m. rather than the usual 7:30 evening show) at the Capitol Theatre, featuring the Yakima Symphony Chorus and other performers, with everyone — on stage and off — encouraged to join the fun and come in costume.
The stories behind much of the contemporary music on the program will be familiar through Broadway and film, from “Phantom of the Opera” and “Wicked” to “The Witches of Eastwick” and the Harry Potter series. Some of the purely orchestral classics, however, may be new to some.
The Danse macabre by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns began as a song for voice and piano, based on a poem by Henri Cazalis in which Death is portrayed as a fiddler. Striking up a waltz at midnight on Halloween, he conjures skeletal apparitions who dance ever more ferociously until the rooster crows at dawn, when they must disperse back to their graves until the following Halloween.
Given the imagery of the poem, it was perhaps inevitable that Saint-Saëns would transform the work into an orchestral showpiece, in which a solo violinist (the concertmaster, opening with a specific dissonance known at the time as the “devil in music”) is joined by a symphony of whirling demons, most recognizably with the brittle rattling of the xylophone to portray dancing skeletons.
Playing also on the medieval tradition of the danse macabre, through which Death makes equals of everyone from royalty to peasants, the composer introduces a variation on the Dies irae (“Day of Wrath”) from the Requiem Mass.
Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” may be the best-known “classical” work on Saturday’s program, but Mussorgsky himself never heard the piece. His 1867 tone poem, “St. John’s Night on Bald Mountain,” painted a vivid depiction of witches who summon Satan for a black Sabbath; but his mentor Mily Balakirev found the work too crude and vulgar, so this original version was shelved and never performed until its rediscovery in the 20th century.
After Mussorgsky’s death, his colleague Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov rearranged and more brilliantly re-orchestrated the work, creating the audience favorite we know today.
The program will close with the rousing “Dies irae” from a 2005 Requiem by Welsh composer Karl Jenkins, who during the 1970s and ’80s was a key member of the progressive-rock group Soft Machine.
• David Rogers is executive director of the Yakima Symphony Orchestra. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 509-248-1414.