Mayuko Kamio

Vancouver Symphony Orchestra & Nicole Buetti: keeping orchestra music alive

Orchestra opens season with original music composed by one of its members

“Good evening everyone!” Vancouver Symphony Orchestra music director Salvador Brotons told the full house at Skyview Concert Hall. “This evening: all American music. We usually play only the dead composers,” including this night’s classics by Leonard Bernstein and Samuel Barber. But this time, he said, “we have another piece from another American—and is alive! And she is here!”

He passed the microphone to the orchestra’s contrabassonist Nicole Buetti, author of the September 30 concert’s opening Odyssey Overture. “It’s always scary as a composer to put your music in front of your peers,” Buetti said, turning to her fellow symphony players. Pointing to her seat, way back at the far end of the wind section by the upright basses, she said, “I’m fortunate to sit in the middle of the orchestra: the best seat in the house.”

The overture is dedicated to Buetti’s father, who instilled in her a love for science, Star Trek, and Star Wars. He championed the piece, calling its melody his favorite and asking when she would finally set it for orchestra. “Well, dad,” Buetti said, gesturing to the orchestra behind her, preparing to play her music, “twice in one weekend: pretty good!” She concluded by hinting at the overture’s hidden programmatic element. “Rather than tell you the story I had in my head—though it’s a good one!—I’d like to invite you to sit back and imagine your own story.”

Mayuko Kamio plays Barber with VSO and Brotons. Photo: Paul Quackenbush

This is not only my first time hearing Buetti’s music, it’s my first time hearing the VSO. The brooding, cinematic opening gives me a pretty good idea of what this orchestra would sound like playing the Firebird Suite. Concertmaster Eva Richey’s solo violin hovers over heavy low strings and dark winds, Elfman-y contrabassoon work from Buetti answered by Barbara Heilmair’s spooky bass clarinet. A bouncy trio in 5/8 starts up, passing from Buetti to the other bassoons and thence to ecstatic trumpets and trombones, then a nice little oboe solo from Alan Juza and the return of that gorgeous melody in the strings as the horns blend into the ever-building wall of sound. If Bartók had Gone West to write music for action movies, it might have sounded like this.

A big, dramatic finish out of Goldsmith or Horner brings it to a close, and a big grin breaks over Buetti’s face. I jot in my notes, “colorful, confident orchestration.” And, more significantly, “melody! hooray for melody!”

Japanese violinist Mayuko Kamio started up Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto with a quiet, delicate opening, supported by rich horns (I dare say this section might be better than Oregon Symphony’s). The second movement, another lovely oboe solo answered by sweet cellos and a high clean violin section. Kamio’s line turns tragic, light and bittersweet, a vigorous vibrato, molto schmaltzando, as muted trumpets echo mysteriously in the distance. As the last movement’s virtuosic perpetuo moto got underway Kamio began to really pick up steam, full orchestra punctuating her hoedown grooving, Florian Conzetti bending way over his timpani to play a quick snare drum flourish, Brotons’s legs braced wide for the big ending, a hop and a sting and it was over.

After a quick consultation with Brotons, Kamio came back out for an encore, a dazzling set of variations on that famous theme of Paganini’s, her playing rough and weird (in a good way), fancy battuto strokes and left-hand pizzicato pull-offs that put me in mind of Eddie van Halen. A few “wow”s susserated around the audience.

Music from the Theater

Before the Bernstein set—symphonic suites from Candide and West Side Story—Brotons talked a bit about the composer, whose centennial celebration continues to enliven music halls around the country. “Bernstein was a complete musician, one of the greatest of the 20th century,” Brotons said. He gave a little background on the composer’s operetta Candide, saying there is “not much difference between operetta and musical: is light, but also intense and beautiful.” He concluded by relating the story behind “Make Our Garden Grow,” the justly popular song that closes both the operetta and Charlie Harmon’s orchestral suite. “I hope it will make you cry,” Brotons said, “and I hope you will make your garden grow.”

Continues…