Vancouver Symphony Orchestra & Nicole Buetti: keeping orchestra music alive

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

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

“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.”

It made a certain kind of sense to tweak the usual overture-concerto-symphony rhythm for this concert. The orchestra could, of course, have played one of Bernstein’s three numbered (and named) symphonies, but those are not only much more serious in tone but are also considerably challenging musical works—and not just for the players. As a compromise, a pair of symphonic suites from the composer’s ample catalog of theater and dance music made a winning substitute.

Even Bernstein’s lighter side has plenty of modernistic material to chew on, alongside its more poppy and accessible elements, giving the VSO many chances to shine. The polytonal sarcasms throughout the satirical Candide suite, especially during that gnarly Ravelesque waltz, big orchestral ballyhoo contrasting with tender solos for Dieter Ratzlaf’s cello, for Dan Partridge’s horn, for Rachel Rencher’s flute.

West Side Story’s union of spicy dance rhythms and Mahlerian duende, the marriage of heaven and earth, of the heart and the feet. On “Somewhere” a heartbreaking canon for string quartet (“there’s a place for us”) breaks into a full song for orchestra. The percussion section was really cooking all throughout, busy bongos and raucous toms, spangly xylophone and smoky vibraphone, percussionist Dianna Hnatiw looking a little timid but kicking solid ass on the drum set, Conzetti playing the timpani with a pair of maracas. That shimmering dream sequence, the immortal “Cool” fugue, the whole orchestra snapping their fingers, shouting “mambo!” Everything, perhaps, a little on the slower side—not dragging, but not exactly brisk either, suitable for a concert hall. And I think Maestro Brotons would be pleased that the VSO’s brass section did manage, on that closing chorale of “Make Our Garden Grow,” to make this reviewer weep. Just a little.

Nicole Buetti: from screen to stage

ArtsWatch spoke with composer and contrabassonist Nicole Buetti before the concert. Her answers have been condensed and edited for flow and clarity.

On the Odyssey Overture and why no one writes for orchestra anymore

One of the reasons people don’t [write for orchestra] anymore is because it is much harder to get it played. It’s much easier for chamber work, smaller groups of people. I started out writing for film and TV out in L.A.—I did a lot of movie trailers and documentaries. A lot of that was fully orchestrated music, but most of it was done with midi—it was electronic. Occasionally, we’d hire a couple of musicians to fill it out a little bit.

But this one piece I had written used a theme I had originally written way back when. It was one of my father’s favorites, and he was always saying, “you need to write this for full orchestra, you need to get a real orchestra to play it.” Which is why I finally ended up doing that during [her study for a] master’s degree, and then decided to finish it, or expand on it, and refine it now.

I was talking with Maestro Brotons one day—he was very approachable, which is very rare for conductors—and I knew that he had taught and was a composer, so I brought him some of my chamber works. I thought I could get some work on the chamber series, and just for the heck of it threw on the recording from my master’s degree.

He listened to everything and came back to me and said, “yeah, I think we can do this,” and I was in shock. I never thought he was going to want to do it. So we sat down and went over the piece together, and he gave me some great constructive criticism on things that I could do to refine it. I reworked the whole piece, added several minutes to it.

You can learn a lot about orchestration working with real players, and I try to do that on any of the stuff I write. I get friends to look over the parts for any of the instrumental parts I’m not proficient on and make sure I’m not doing something that is completely wrong. I love writing for orchestra, I just wish it was easier to get an orchestra to play it. It would be nice to have your own orchestra. If I had a billion dollars, I would do that.

On film music

It was always something I wanted to do, from when I was very young. Most people were listening to pop music. I was going to the record store and getting movie scores. The score to Glory, which was James Horner. You’ve got to say John Williams—he’s the god of all film scores. And Michael Kamen was one of my favorites as well. I also loved how he started doing rock and roll: he orchestrated Metallica and that was pretty cool.

The Glory score was one of the first ones where I was like “wow, that’s pretty cool, I want to do that.” Michael Kamen’s score to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was one of my favorites. The action-adventure stuff, it must be so much fun to play and write, so both of those sucked me into it. And then, when you start doing further studies and seeing who they were influenced by—you know, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, those amazing composers—it really does just keep spiraling and you keep discovering more and more music that way. And of course Star Wars. Who doesn’t like Star Wars?

Composer Nicole Buetti plays contrabassoon in VSO’s opening concert. Photo: Paul Quackenbush

I moved to L.A. to start my Master’s degree at UCLA and ended up getting hired at a music trailer company, first as a music supervisor. Then they were putting out a music library, and they needed music for it, so I wrote some music for it. One of the pieces I wrote got picked up for Woody Allen for his movie Melinda and Melinda; if you pop in the CD for that movie, that’s my music. That was a cool start to my short career in film. I did a lot of stuff for libraries and a lot of TV promos and movie trailers. But when streaming started, the bottom kind of fell out. The market got flooded with people doing libraries. You went from people making thousands of dollars for a license to hundreds and then to tens and you just can’t live off of it anymore. That’s when I was like, “ok, find something else to supplement.”

Attracting New Audiences

I like to do kind of a fusion of [classical and popular music]. My kids music, the actual music I keep fun and complex and similarly orchestrated like I would have done for film, but make the lyrics and the melody relatable and easily accessible.

I really think that’s the way orchestras should be going. Vancouver is starting to go that way, Oregon Symphony is—where we fuse the concerts a little bit, or we do a couple Pops concerts. I think a great way to do it is have Brahms on a concert and then maybe throw in Star Wars, so people are drawn in by the thing they like but then get exposed to something they didn’t know about but end up liking.

A lot of people have been doing video game orchestrations. I did one for Zelda last year—the Legend of Zelda, which I played in college. More than I should have. It was a crazy mix of people in that audience: little kids dressed up in costume and much, much older people dressed up in costumes too. And just how much they enjoyed the music!

I think sometimes that gets a little bit lost. We are trying to hold on so tightly to the classical stuff that it gets lost that we are there to bring joy to other people, not just ourselves. I think the future is fusing the two together. Playing Zelda and playing Mahler all in that same concert. You’ll get such a crazy audience. And I really think the people who have never heard Mahler are going to be like “wow, that’s incredible” and the people who have never heard Zelda will be like “wow, this is cool.”

Maybe that’s not the best math, but to start embracing the popular music, also holding onto the roots—Mozart, Beethoven, ’cause that’s where all the new composers get the inspiration from—I really think that’s going to be the future. It’s really nice that we have symphonies that are embracing that a little more. I think that’s how we are going to keep the audience and build the audience and get people to appreciate classical music and popular music. At least that is what I hope.

You’ve got to give the people what they want and keep them wanting to come back for more. That’s what we are trying to do in Vancouver Symphony. It is making it a lot of fun and I think the audience is very receptive. Hopefully that’s what I’ve done with my piece. Hopefully it is something the audience can grab onto and enjoy.

VSO’s Next Performances

VSO welcomes Vancouver-based Georgian pianist Dmitri Zhgenti for its next concerts on November 3-4, featuring Khachaturian’s vigorous and bizarre concerto, a Berlioz overture, and Mendelssohn’s Scotland-inspired third symphony.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor of Subito at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.
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