May brings a soundtrack for Walla Walla history


We celebrated Walla Walla’s sesquicentennial in 2012. The city was incorporated in 1862, but Fort Walla Walla came first, in 1818, and the Whitmans arrived in 1836.

What did the world sound like then? First answer: quieter, except where locomotives were chugging along the nascent railroads (the first steam trains were invented about the same time the Fort Walla Walla was built).

But in most places, it was rivers, birds, animals, wind and voices.

Musically, the early history of our town coincides with the age of romanticism, a time when composers started to stretch, bend and break the formal structures of the age of Mozart and push into an emotion-laden landscape.

The world of feeling — the inner world — was believed to connect to the outer world, the world of nature, history and humanity.

Wow! Who would have thought that my innermost emotions have some deep linkage to the way the world works?

The German Robert Schumann would, for one. He completed his “Piano Concerto in A minor” in 1845, while the Whitmans were still living at Waiilatpu.

His wife Clara, a famous, accomplished pianist and composer, played the solo at the premiere.

Robert and Clara were deeply in love and remained so throughout their marriage despite Robert’s later descent into mental illness and eventual hospitalization.

The concerto was written during his happiest years, and the music shows it. The piece is in three movements, but the last two are connected (although different in spirit and even in key).

On May 20, you can listen for Schumann’s legendary melodic inventiveness when the Walla Walla Symphony, which came along in 1907 and has entertained audiences ever since, performs this striking work in its “Soulmates” concert. (See box.)

The pianist for the Schumann concerto will be David Hyun-Su Kim, a new member of the Whitman College faculty.

He played a solo recital program in February and his performance stunned me and everyone else present.

Kim is a master of his instrument, a player of vast expressive qualities, subtlety of phrasing, emotional power and clarity. Do yourself the favor of seizing the opportunity to hear him this time. You’ll thank me.

When the 20-year-old Johannes Brahms came to Schumann’s attention, the latter quickly recognized his genius, even publishing that “He has come, this chosen youth, over whose cradle the Graces and Heroes seem to have kept watch.” Wow again.

Brahms’ “Symphony No. 3,” also on the “Soulmates” program, has been hailed as a masterpiece since its debut. I could not begin to describe its majesty here; rather, I invite you to hear it.

It was first performed in 1883. In Walla Walla, much had changed by then. Some stone and brick buildings were built on Main Street, and Whitman College was founded.

Out at the fort, 1883 saw the birth of Jonathan M. Wainwright. He became a four-star general in World War II and had his own ticker-tape parade in Manhattan after being liberated from a Japanese POW camp.

The year was a good one for the Valley, but not everywhere. If you believe in a deep linkage of spirit and nature, be warned that 1883 was when Krakatau erupted in Indonesia, creating tsunamis and killing more than 36,000 people.

If you are like me, you can’t get enough of the music of Maurice Ravel. Last month’s Walla Walla Symphony performance of “Bolero” whetted my appetite.

And now the Whitman College Symphony offers another delectable morsel: the first movement of the “Piano Concerto in G”, with the talented Phoebe Horvath performing the demanding solo part.

I love the jazzy, almost Gershwin-like first theme of this movement: a Parisian in Paris.

Also on the program is a bluesy song from Kurt Weill and Langston Hughes’s 1947 “Street Scene”, sung by senior David Fleming, a young man with a very impressive range of acting and vocal talents.

The Whitman concert closes with the teenage Mozart’s 25th symphony, whose first movement may be familiar as the opening music of the movie “Amadeus.”

It is a perfectly crafted 20-minute masterwork. Some believe that he finished it a mere two days after his previous symphony.

On May 1, Walla Walla University’s harp ensemble, directed by Chelsea Spence, principal harpist of the Walla Walla Symphony, will perform a selection of pieces at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church’s First Thursday noon concert.

John Jamison teaches in the Quest program at Walla Walla Community College and serves on the board of the Walla Walla Symphony. He retired to Walla Walla in 2003 from a teaching career in Seattle. He can be reached at


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