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Barber, Bernstein: All-American lineup for VSO season opener

Member of orchestra's bassoon section will also play her new composition

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Leonard Bernstein would have turned 100 in August. The composer-conductor is being celebrated with more than 3,300 events worldwide over two seasons, continuing into next year.
Leonard Bernstein would have turned 100 in August. The composer-conductor is being celebrated with more than 3,300 events worldwide over two seasons, continuing into next year. (Courtesy of the Leonard Bernstein Office) Photo Gallery

The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra will celebrate its 40th season with an all-American lineup that features popular works by two big names, Samuel Barber and Leonard Bernstein, plus a brand-new piece by composer Nicole Buetti, a member of the orchestra’s bassoon section.

Barber’s Violin Concerto has an interesting history. In 1939, Samuel Fels, who made millions selling soap, such as the popular laundry soap Fels-Naptha, commissioned Barber to write a concerto for his violin-playing son. Fels gave Barber a down payment of $500 with another $500 due upon completion of the piece.

Barber created two movements with gorgeous, lyrical passages, but the son wanted something really flashy. Barber responded with an exciting finale that put the soloist in constant motion. The heir thought the finale was unplayable. So Barber brought another violinist who demonstrated to the father that it could be performed. The father agreed with Barber, paid him the rest of the money, and informed his son that another violinist would perform the world premiere.

Afterward, Barber liked to refer to the concerto as the “Concerto da Sapone,” the Soap Concerto. It has become one of the most famous violin concertos of the 20th century.

Japanese violinist Mayuko Kamio, who electrified the audience with a stellar performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto two years ago, will be the featured soloist in Barber’s Violin Concerto. The 32-year-old virtuoso vaulted into the limelight when she won the gold medal of the 2007 International Tchaikovsky Competition at the age of 21.

If You Go

 What: VSO goes all-American with Barber, Bernstein and Buetti.

 When: 3 p.m. Sept. 29 and 7 p.m. Sept. 30.

 Where: Skyview High School Concert Hall, 1300 N.W. 139th St., Vancouver.

 Cost: $50 for reserved seats, $38 for general admission, $34 for seniors and $10 for students.

“The Barber Violin Concerto is so romantic,” said Kamio. “It is full of love, genuine and unpretentious. Really pleasant to play and hear. I think the first and second movements are typical of Barber. They are filled with of romanticism and beauty.”

Kamio played the concerto with the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra a few years ago. It is part of her repertoire of concertos that she likes to have at the ready.

When asked how she memorizes different works, Kamio replied, “I don’t really have a precise, dependable photographic memory, though I do memorize a little bit that way. I think it’s mostly ears, listening to yourself, and recordings and such.”

Kamio plays an Antonio Stradivari 1731 “Rubinoff” on loan from the Munetsugu Foundation in Japan.

Celebrating Bernstein

To celebrate the centennial birthday of Bernstein, the orchestra will play a brilliant arrangement of musical themes from “Candide,” an opera that he based on Voltaire’s novella. The arrangement was written by Charlie Harmon, who was Bernstein’s assistant from 1982 to 1986. If you want to know how difficult it is to work with a genius, you should read Harmon’s “On the Road and Off the Record with Leonard Bernstein,” which was recently published by Imagine.

The orchestra will also perform Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story.”  This piece consists of nine selections from the famous musical, but Bernstein placed them in an uninterrupted sequence derived from a strictly musical rationale. Two of the most beloved favorites of the musical’s songs are found in the pages of the Symphonic Dances: “Somewhere” and “Maria” (in the Cha-Cha section), though not the also-popular “America,” “I Feel Pretty” or “Tonight.”

The concert will open with the world premiere of “Odyssey,” an eight-minute piece that Buetti finished earlier this year.

“I wrote ‘Odyssey’ for a full-sized orchestra,” said Buetti. “It has a big sweeping sound that is lush and romantic. I put in a solo for contra bassoon, which I will play, but there will also be a solo for bass clarinet and another for the tuba. These are instruments that usually don’t get the spotlight in an orchestral piece.”

Buetti earned a degree in composition and bassoon performance at the University of Northern Colorado and followed that with graduate studies at UCLA. She stayed in California for several years, writing music for movie trailers and films before moving to Vancouver. Now she teaches bassoon, plays in several orchestras, and writes kids music for Goes to Eleven ( and In a World Music (

Last April, Buetti showed “Odyssey” to VSO Music Director Salvador Brotons to get some advice. He offered a few suggestions, and mentioned that the orchestra could play it.  That is the thrill of a lifetime for Buetti, whose family is flying to Vancouver to hear the performance.

VSO’s 40th Season

Sept. 29-30 — Bernstein’s Centennial Celebration

Nov. 3-4 — Scottish Symphony No. 3

Dec. 8-9 — Holiday Pops Concert

Jan. 26-27 — VSO Goes to Broadway!

Feb. 23-24 — The “Big Two” of Vienna

April 13-14 — Young Artists Concert

June 1-2 — A Gallery of Music & Musicians

“The main theme of the piece came to me 15 years ago,” remarked Buetti. “It was my dad’s favorite theme. He wanted me to go back to it and use it again. So, I have dedicated ‘Odyssey’ to him.”