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Forte: Symphonic dances to stir the soul

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FILE — Yakima Symphony Orchestra at The Capitol Theatre in Yakima, Wash., on Sunday, Feb. 2, 2019. The orchestra canceled its March 21 concert and rescheduled its March 27 Raise the Baton fundraiser to June 19 because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Two months ago, the Yakima Symphony Orchestra was joined on stage for a holiday pops program by the Yakima School of Ballet for excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s final ballet, the much-loved “Nutcracker.” This weekend, the orchestra presents an entire program of music meant to be danced to or evoke dance, beginning with a suite from Tchaikovsky’s first ballet, “Swan Lake.”

Until Tchaikovsky, ballet music played a purely supporting role to the primary spectacle. The scenarios rarely followed a coherent dramatic arc, but rather were a series of loosely related episodes built around the star dancers of each production, all designed to show off their particular talents. Any given ballet presentation might include music by a variety of ballet composers, most of whom wrote nothing else, and any given musical selection was interchangeable with any other. Only the dance itself was considered crucial.

Tchaikovsky brought a different sense of musical drama to the task, creating a musical design around a dramatic narrative in the manner of an opera. Indeed, the scenario for “Swan Lake” has elements in common with several of Richard Wagner’s operas — particularly “Lohengrin,” which also features an enchanted swan. Using a leitmotif as a musical representation of the swan, Tchaikovsky gave the ballet a degree of thematic unity more typical of symphonic music.

Though some critics panned the music as “undanceable” and too symphonic, like “Nutcracker” it has rightfully become one of the most popular and successful ballets in the repertoire.

While on the faculty of the Moscow Conservatory in 1888, Tchaikovsky commented on young student Sergei Rachmaninoff: “For him, I predict a great future.” Indeed, Rachmaninoff enjoyed tremendous success as both pianist and composer. Following the 1917 revolution, he fled Russia and emigrated to the United States, where financial pressures resulted in an increase in his performing schedule and a corresponding decrease in his output as composer.

“Symphonic Dances” was the last major work he completed before his death in California in 1943, and with thematic references to several of his earlier works it serves as something of a musical farewell. Composed for the Philadelphia Orchestra and brilliantly orchestrated, it was written partly with an eye toward a second collaboration with famed choreographer Michael Fokine, who had created a work based on the composer’s “Paganini Rhapsody” but who died before this project could come to pass.

Rounding out Saturday’s program is another colorful dance-inspired work, by American composer Gabriela Lena Frank. Composed in 2003 for Keith Lockhart and the Utah Symphony (who recorded it with the Rachmaninoff shortly afterward), “Three Latin American Dances” draws from Frank’s multicultural heritage, which includes Lithuanian, Peruvian and Chinese roots. In her words, “I (want to) be as mestiza in my music as I (am) in my person: I’m multiracial, I’m multicultural, and I think that’s something deeply American.”

These dances show a kaleidoscope of influences from Andean folk music to Leonard Bernstein and Alberto Ginastera.

• David Rogers is executive director of the Yakima Symphony Orchestra. Learn more at

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