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A beacon that flashes across the universe: Viola concertos by Nicole Buetti and Johan Hugosson

Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra and Brett Deubner perform not one but two world premieres.

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Quasar with jet and magnetic lines. Credit: CXC/M.Weiss.

“I thought it would be fun to compare my dad with a quasar,” said Portland-based composer Nicole Buetti over the phone. “It’s the brightest object in the universe with a black hole at its core. It draws everything into its center, then explodes with an injection jet that lights up the universe. Quasars are rare and fascinating objects. My dad was like that. People were drawn to him – even people who met him for the first time – and he lit up a room.”

Buetti was talking about her newest piece, Quasar, an elegy for viola and orchestra that will receive its world premiere by virtuoso Brett Deubner and the Portland Columbia Symphony on November 11 and 13.

Violist Brett Deubner. Photo courtesy of the artist.

“Usually the music I write is light-hearted and fun,” added Buetti. “But in early 2020 I lost my dad and that was hard to deal with. He and my mom were in Colorado and with COVID going on, it made things difficult. I ended up writing the second movement first. The movement is called Loss, and it was about what me and my family were feeling in losing him. The piece has a double-meaning behind the title. My dad was a physicist who was really into outer space. He and I were big sci-fi nerds. I love astronomy, and he is part of the reason why I write song for kids that involve the planets and astronomy.”

Quasar has three movements and is around twenty minutes in length. 

“The first movement is about the chaos of everything being sucked and ripped to shreds in by the quasar,” explained Buetti. “The second movement is the loss of light and matter that has been sucked in until there’s nothing left. The third movement is called Ascension and that’s the explosion of the light. It’s a beacon that flashes across the universe.”

Deubner has been a champion of new works for the viola, with over fifty concertos composed and dedicated to him. He played a big role in Quasar as well. 

“I met Brett Deubner in 2019 when the PSCO played my piece, Odyssey,” remarked Buetti. “Our conductor Steven Byess did the piece a couple weeks before with Brett and another orchestra. Bett heard the piece and liked it. He met me when we played it in Portland, and then he asked me to write a piece for viola. I initially started it in early 2020. Then COVID messed things up, and we put it on hold. Mid-2021 I picked it back up and finished it early this year.”

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Buetti has a bachelor’s degree and masters from the University of Northern Colorado. But in the time between those achievements, she lived in Los Angeles where she originally intended to study film scoring at UCLA with Jerry Goldsmith, one of Hollywood’s legendary composers. Unfortunately, he became very ill and the program was cancelled. So, Buetti transferred to the regular composition program and did film music, commercials, and documentaries, and started a music media company.

After eight years in Los Angeles, she moved back to Colorado and finished her masters at UNC. Over the next few years she met Jason Gunderson who began working with Monette Trumpets. So, they married and moved to Portland. 

Buetti has a bassoon studio with fifteen students, and she also teaches bassoon at the University of Portland, Willamette University, and Clark College. Because of her many students, she spends a lot of time making reeds. She loves to teach this complex instrument to kids. If you want to see how she makes it fun, take a look at her informative and charming YouTube channel (read Brett Campbell’s feature on Buetti’s “Meet the Instruments” series here).

Normally, the composer sits somewhere in the audience when her work is played–but Buetti is a member of the PSCO, and will be in the midst of her colleagues, playing the contrabassoon.

“I enjoy being within the orchestra. It’s a fun way to hear the piece. But it is also terrifying being in the middle of your peers and wondering if they are going to hate it or like it.“

Solace

It is fairly uncommon to hear a concert with even one viola concerto, but the PSCO will double-down and present the world premiere of two viola-centric numbers. The second work, Samarthana, is by Swedish composer Johan Hugosson.

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“In 2015, there was a devastating earthquake in Nepal,” said Hugosson via Zoom from his home in Lund, Sweden. “I was very moved by that and decided to write the piece. I found this word, which means solace. It’s a one-movement work that is extremely lyrical.”

Huggoson has a bachelors and masters in piano performance from the Royal College of Music in London and is furthering his composition studies at the Malmö College of Music.

Deubner also played a role in how Smarthana came about. 

“I met Brett Deubner at a music festival in Sweden where he was performing,” explained Hugosson. “I initially wrote Samarthana for viola and piano. Deubner plays it on his Mother Earth album. Then he asked me to orchestrate it. So, I expanded it into a symphonic piece.”

You can hear the contemplative original version here:

“I started the whole melody from music notes E and A,” said Huggoson. “It was a melody that came to me while walking down the street. That was for a violin, but I had to transpose it a fifth down for the viola.”

Hugosson is looking forward to hearing the PSCO perform his piece. It will be his first time to visit Portland. After he returns home, he will start working on a new piece for the Malmö Symphony Orchestra.

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“I feel very fortunate,” he noted. “They have a new concert hall in Malmö. It’s fantastic.”

Also on the PSCO program are River Mountain Sky by Australian composer Maria Grenfell and Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.
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2 Responses

  1. Wanna go full-on viola ga-ga?
    OK, Benedict Mason’s gotcha covered:
    “Concerto for the Viola Section” (1990 – 25 minutes)
    Ben was one of Ligeti’s fave students (along with Unsuk Chin, Denys Bouliane & Roberto Sierra) & if you check out some of his music, you’ll know why . . .

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