Odyssey (2003; 2013–18)

Nicole Buetti (b. 1979)

Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion (snare drum, suspended cymbal, crash cymbals, gong, triangle, wind chimes, and glockenspiel), 2 harps (or harp and piano), and strings

Duration: 8 ½ minutes

Nicole Buetti has been a science fiction fan from as early as she can remember. It was her father who first sparked her interest in the genre; she has many fond childhood memories of sneaking in to sit next to him while he watched Star Trek. She has always been taken in by the idea of “traveling to different planets and meeting different aliens,” as she puts it, “I would love to just fly out into space and see what’s out there.”

Buetti also developed an interest in music from an early age, banging out melodies on an electric piano when she was as young as four years old. Naturally, her two passions collided, and as she grew older she became more and more interested in sci-fi scores and film music generally. She devoured Star Trek, Star Wars, and Stargate, and became obsessed with composers like John Williams and Stargate’s David Arnold.

These days, Buetti leads a busy, successful life as a Portland-based performer, composer, and teacher. A contrabassoonist who performs with the Portland Columbia Symphony and other ensembles, she also runs a popular children’s music channel on YouTube. But before she landed in the Pacific Northwest, Buetti moved to Los Angeles to follow her dream of working as a film composer. 

As a newcomer to the industry, she eagerly took on any work she could find and learned to adapt to any musical style; if the studio needed Bollywood hip hop, she would learn to write Bollywood hip hop. She also learned to write incredibly quickly, having to turn around full orchestral compositions in just a few days. Over the course of eight years working in this fast-paced world, she seized the opportunity to hone her skills and find her voice as a composer. 

While she was in Los Angeles, Buetti had composed a brief, one-minute sci-fi theme (or cue, as they’re known in the film industry). Her father, who especially loved the melody, encouraged her to develop it further, but she didn’t have time to work on it until a decade later, when she had returned to graduate school. Then, over the course of five years, she expanded the cue into Odyssey, a full orchestral overture premiered by the Vancouver (WA) Symphony Orchestra in September 2018. This will be Odyssey’s fourth performance, with several more on the horizon.

Odyssey unfolds in three sections, and is packed with vibrant, cinematic music. As a contrabassoonist, Buetti likes to draw attention to instruments like hers that don’t often see the spotlight. “The contrabassoon has three big solos, and that’s not normal,” she jokes. Referring to other instruments like the bass clarinet and the double bass that often only play the so-called “bass line,” she says, “I like to feature my low compadres… It can be such a beautiful, and menacing, and also kind-of-funny sound, depending on what you’re using it for.”  

Describing the piece as “my own little space odyssey,” Buetti talks about it as if it’s film music without the film; in fact, she designed an entire story before writing the music. But that doesn’t mean she wants listeners to follow her narrative when they listen. “I like people to make up their own stories,” says Buetti. “When I compose music, what I feel and what I get out of it might not necessarily be what someone else gets out of it. People tell me about colors and stories and characters, and that is so cool. To me, that is the fun of it, because everyone takes different things away from the music.” 


Viola Concerto, “The Voyager” (2017)

Richard Danielpour (b. 1956)

Instrumentation: solo viola, 2 flutes, 1 oboe (doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, percussion (bass drum, chimes, congas, crotales, floor tam, glockenspiel, guiro, hi-hat, crash cymbals, snare drum, suspended cymbal, tambourine, tam-tam, triangle, vibraphone, whip, and xylophone), harp, and strings

Duration: 24 minutes

In the early 1900s, a young generation of composers led by Arnold Schoenberg full-heartedly embraced dissonance, or the combination of pitches that audibly clash with one another. As they saw it, composers who did otherwise were simply repeating the past. Although deeply controversial at first, these composers’ ideas soon proved equally influential. By the years following World War II, classical composers who avoided dissonance were widely viewed as old-fashioned, and experimentalism was seen as the only way forward – from electronic music to free improvisation and beyond.

American composer Richard Danielpour has been a leading voice among the generation of composers who broke with this philosophy. Like many of his contemporaries, Danielpour initially experimented with dissonant techniques like serialism (a mathematical approach to composing), only to reject such approaches in favor of what has been referred to both by critics and proponents as a return to the past. 

Danielpour described his musical influences this year in an interview with the Iranian Americans’ Contributions Project: 

“… the bedrock, the foundation of everything that I have learned as a composer, lies in my love for the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartók, Shostakovich, Britten, and Aaron Copland. Yet, I have also grown to love some of my living contemporaries, and as a child grew up loving African-American music. In particular, this was the music of gospel, blues, and that which was coming out of Motown. The Beatles also had a profound influence on my life as a child. In the end there are two types of music: good and bad.”

This openness to a wide variety of influences has propelled Danielpour to an impressive career. He has been commissioned by everyone from the New York Philharmonic to the San Francisco Symphony, and he has written concertos for soloists including Emanuel Ax, Gil Shaham, and Thomas Hampson. Danielpour’s 1994 Cello Concerto, written for Yo-Yo Ma, won a Grammy Award, and in 2005 he collaborated with author Toni Morrison to create his first opera, Margaret Garner. More recently, the Oregon Bach Festival premiered his oratorio The Passion of Yeshua to an excellent response in 2017.

That same year, violist Brett Deubner performed the world premiere of Danielpour’s Viola Concerto, “The Voyager,” with Musique Sur La Mer in Southern California. Organized in five movements, the concerto has a thoroughly defined narrative and dramatic arc. “My vision for this concerto was centered around the idea of an explorer who leaves the comfort of his domain to embark, search, and reach into the unknown,” writes Danielpour in his note about the piece. “The mystic explorer goes out in search of the eternal, and what he ultimately discovers is himself.”

This inner transformation parallels an external one, as the voyager “recognizes the damage that he has done to his environment and his earth, but also understands the power that is within him to make the world a better place.” Danielpour continues, “All restoration however has to begin from within, which is why the idea for this piece is centered on an individual, in this case symbolized by a soloist.”

Structurally, the five-movement concerto is centered around a viola cadenza, or virtuosic solo passage, here with no orchestral accompaniment besides the timpani and low strings. The first and final movements, The Departure and The Return, serve to introduce and frame the concerto’s narrative. Danielpour describes the second movement as an “exotic tango,” while the fourth is a lush aria highlighting the viola’s lyrical side. 


Scheherazade (1888)

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908)

Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, and tam-tam), harp, and strings

Duration: 47 minutes

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov didn’t take the expected path to becoming a composer. Rather than the conservatory, he attended the naval academy, and he only began taking piano lessons seriously when he was 15 years old. Luckily, just before beginning his naval career, he met composer Mily Balakirev, who recognized the young naval student’s potential, taught him the basics of composing, and encouraged him to write a symphony.

A year later, in 1862, Rimsky-Korsakov embarked on his first naval voyage, leaving his symphony unfinished.  His naval travels would take him around the world, including Brazil, Europe, and the United States at the height of the Civil War. When he returned home in 1865, having studied intermittently during his long months at sea, Rimsky-Korsakov finally completed his First Symphony. 

From there, it didn’t take the young composer long to establish himself as a leading voice in Russia’s budding classical music world. After the premiere of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Fantasy on Serbian Themes in 1867, critic Vladimir Stasov was so impressed that he famously proclaimed that Russia finally had produced its own “Mighty Handful” of composers. This handful specifically included Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev, Alexander Borodin, César Cui, and Modest Mussorgsky, also known as “The Five.”

The most important commonality among the Mighty Handful was their interest in musical nationalism, or asserting Russia’s musical independence from Western Europe. They incorporated Russian folk music and stories into their compositions, worked with Russian authors and poets, and generally put a specifically Russian brand of concert music on the map. 

From there, Rimsky-Korsakov’s musical career quickly took off. Having never taken an academic course in music theory himself, he became a professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and wrote textbooks that are still widely used in Russia today. His legacy includes not only his own orchestral and operatic music, but also teaching many of the next generation of Russian composers, including Igor Stravinsky.

In 1887, following the death of Mighty Handful member Alexander Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov decided to pay tribute to his friend by completing Borodin’s unfinished opera Prince Igor. Rimsky-Korsakov delved into the opera’s Middle East-inspired world, which seems to have inspired him to continue exploring Middle Eastern themes with his own next piece, Scheherazade.

Scheherazade is one of the most popular examples of program music, or music that intentionally contains a non-musical meaning, often telling a story. In this case, the story comes from One Thousand and One Nights (also known as The Arabian Nights), a collection of Middle Eastern and Indian stories and fairy tales gathered together in the eighth century. The first English language version appeared in the early 1700s, and the tales spread throughout the Western world during the next two centuries.

The overarching story that frames One Thousand and One Nights’ diverse tales features Scheherazade, the latest young woman to be forced to marry a sultan named Schahriar. Convinced that all women are unfaithful, Schahriar’s insecurity has caused him to put each of his previous wives to death after their first night of marriage. Knowing her impending fate, Scheherazade designs a plan to save her life: each night she tells the sultan tales from an ongoing story, always finishing on a cliff hanger. This goes on for 1,001 nights, until the sultan finally decides not to put her to death after all. 

Although far from an expert in Middle Eastern music and culture, Rimsky-Korsakov learned a little bit about the region through his mentor Mily Balakirev, who had traveled there extensively. Rimsky-Korsakov recalled that Balakirev would often bring back melodies he had heard during his travels, adding, “What a revelation his new sounds were to us; we were truly reborn.” 

According to Rimsky-Korsakov’s autobiography, his goal in Scheherazade was to direct “the hearer’s fancy on the path which my own fancy had traveled.” He did so not by realistically imitating Middle Eastern music, but rather by placing some of the sounds popularly associated with Middle Eastern music, such as unusual scales and densely ornamented melodies, within a standard symphonic context. To put it in another way, Rimsky-Korsakov hoped to take the listener on a musical journey to the Middle East – a region stereotyped as dangerous and sensual in Russian popular culture – from the safety of the St. Petersburg concert hall. 

Scheherazade references several of the best-known stories from One Thousand and One Nights, although Rimsky-Korsakov emphasized that the piece does not tell a linear story, describing it instead as “a kaleidoscope of fairy-tale images.” The first movement, The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship, begins with a violin solo that will represent Scheherazade’s voice throughout the piece, while a stern, formidable theme introduces the sultan. Following this introductory section, Scheherazade tells her first story, a tale of the legendary sailor Sinbad and his travels on the high seas.  Rimsky-Korsakov vividly depicts the oceanic setting, drawing from his own naval experience and lifelong interest in the ocean. 

Following another introductory violin solo, the second movement, The Story of the Kalendar Prince, depicts a nobleman who disguises himself as a kalendar, a roving monk who travels between cities entertaining people with stories and magic tricks in exchange for lodging. Movement three, The Young Prince and the Young Princess, is a whimsical love story depicting the burgeoning desire between a prince and princess who are so similar that they could be mistaken for twins. Echoes of previously heard melodies reappear in the dramatic final movement, which depicts a bustling festival in Baghdad followed by a return to the sea as a ship violently crashes up against the rocks. 

—© Ethan Allred, 2019