Spokane Symphony and Spokane Tribal Drum join in performance

Jack McNeel
5/28/08

SPOKANE, Wash. - Bringing together a tribal drum with a symphony orchestra seemed an unlikely union, but the results were dramatic. The performance, which took place at the Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox in downtown Spokane, gave symphony-goers a chance to learn more of the Spokane tribal culture while tribal members likewise learned more about symphony music.

A pre-concert event allowed people to view a variety of exhibits featuring Spokane tribal art, culture and history at Center Stage across from The Fox.

The theme of the day was ''The River is Calling'' and portrayed the importance of the Spokane River to the Spokane Tribe. Spokane Symphony Conductor Eckart Preu explained how this event originated.

''Four years ago, we were invited to go to Wellpinit [on the reservation] and visit and share our culture and get to know their culture. We got together, we sang together, and we danced together. It was so exciting and ever since we have invited them to come here to work with us. Finally, they are here and ready to share their culture with us, to make music with us, to sing with us. We are very, very excited to have them here.''

The concert commenced with a grand entry featuring students from the school dressed in tribal regalia and the Spokane Tribe Drum Circle. That was followed by a prayer blessing. It was certainly not a traditional opening for a symphony concert, but it set the stage for the performances to follow.

Preu introduced the first piece by the symphony, titled ''Children of the Sun.''

''It was composed by my brother after a visit to the reservation several years ago where we saw the mountains and the river. 'I have to compose a piece,' my brother said. 'There is so much culture and so much history here, particularly along the river.' So he wrote this piece and dedicated it to the Spokane Tribe of Indians.'' He further explained that the literal meaning of Spokane is ''children of the sun.''

That was followed by a number called ''The River is Flowing,'' which united the symphony with a student choir made up of youth from the Wellpinit school.

''This song is a beautiful old song,'' said school music director Jeannie Blankenship, ''so old nobody even knows who wrote it, but it brings together the whole concept of honoring the river as the mother to life.''

The audience stood and sang to honor the river while the student choir stood behind the symphony members and used hand motions to illustrate values of the river in pushing young salmon out to the sea, asking the river to give us life and carry us through life, and hope that the river will be clean enough in the future to bring salmon back. As Blankenship explained, ''The river cannot speak for herself, so we will speak for her.''

Students carrying long blue and green banners simulated the river pouring down the aisles while other students portrayed salmon jumping in the river as in earlier times.

Tribal member Jamie SiJohn summed up that part of the concert, saying, ''The inspiration! Just to see those kids do their songs and the kids just so coordinated and so cute. The collaboration, the cultural exchange between the two groups was just beautiful.

''A lot of hard work went in on the kids' side and I think there was a lot of pride in the room, not just from parents and aunties and uncles watching the kids up on the stage, but you could see it in the kids. They were so proud to be up there on that stage. I was proud of those little guys. I think they did a super good job.''

The symphony performed two other pieces, one titled ''Xi Wang'' with Morihiko Nakahara conducting, and a second titled ''Moldau'' with Preu conducting. The river Moldau is in the Czech Republic and holds some similarities to the Spokane River.

The final performance was the joint piece performed by the symphony and the Spokane Tribal Drum. Special permission was given to commission a piece based on a Spokane Honor Song, and it was written by Gregory Yasinitsky. Tribal member Pat Moses explained the song's history, how it had originated during a time of conflict and was particularly meaningful to the tribe.

Many might have questioned how well an Honor Song as performed by a tribal drum would sound when united with the many stringed instruments and woodwinds of a symphony orchestra, but the result was spectacular. The audience reacted enthusiastically with a long applause.

The afternoon concluded with a travel song by the Spokane Tribe Drum Circle, with the symphony conductors joining the circle.

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