Penka Kouneva: A Warrior’s Odyssey. Studio Orchestra (Hollywood, CA), Tim Davies, conductor (recorded July 12, 2012). Howlin’ Wolf Records HWRCD-012. © 2012; total time 48:24; $13.95, on sale for $9.95 through December 2012:

Music lovers in central NC and beyond have been given a remarkable gift by Bulgarian-born composer Penka Kouneva, who arrived in Durham 22 years ago to pursue her dreams in America. Shy, soft-spoken, and gracious in the finest Old World tradition, she quickly endeared herself to an ever-expanding circle of friends and admirers while enriching the lives of those around her with music in diverse forms for performers ranging from children to seasoned professionals. And she did all this while enrolled in graduate school, eventually obtaining her Ph.D. in composition and in the bargain blazing new trails as the first person at Duke University to do so.

Her life story – recapped online and in the notes that accompany her latest CD – is as inspiring as the music she creates. That music speaks of the richness and depth of her background and of her keen intellectual and artistic skills. And with ever-increasing success and critical acclaim, she has brought her art to bear on music in innovative and unusual places, including the film and video game industries.

So it is good to be able report – for the traditionalists among us who rarely visit the worlds projected on the SciFi channel or those sometimes even stranger parallel universes of video games – that this amazing creator has in a sense returned to her roots with an all-orchestral CD of tremendous variety, vitality, and appeal. A Warrior’s Odyssey is basically a symphony in three large movements comprising a total of 18 named parts, the first of which (“Waiting for Dawn to Break”) serves as an introduction to the score. Perhaps reflecting Kouneva’s current home base in Hollywood, the CD reveals that she “composed, orchestrated, and produced” all the music aside from the final number (“Airplane Bound for the Stars”), which was co-composed with Fred Emory Smith. One might aptly term the work a battle symphony but not in the time-honored tradition that term may suggest, for this music does not imitate warfare so much as it evokes the moods and emotions thereof.

One may be struck by the woman soldier on the cover of the CD. This suggests to a certain extent the composer’s own struggles but far more overtly is a tribute to warrior participants in world conflicts. Furthermore, half the proceeds from the sale of the new recording in November and December 2012 are being donated to Hope For The Warriors®, a national charity for veterans and post-9/11 service members. (Read the press release here.)

The music itself richly rewards its hearers on several levels and generously repays repeated listening. This is a powerful, sweeping, elegant symphonic odyssey in its own right, played by some of Hollywood’s finest musicians and beautifully recorded. The score’s myriad details likewise engage, thanks to the many magical moments of contrasting emotion and power. There are sections that will surely inspire surprise, wonder, and reflection – and some that will prompt reference to the outstanding program notes by Gergely Hubai, which detail some of the subtlety in Kouneva’s approach to orchestration.

There is a sense of foreboding in the introduction, leading to the first of the work’s several battle scenes. The opener is not an overture in the traditional sense but rather an anticipatory mood-setter, evoking calm-before-the-storm sensations experienced by many warriors over the years, albeit sometimes only in retrospect. The battle scenes suggest without mimicking Hollywood’s best and also classics from the orchestra literature – “Mars,” from The Planets, by Holst, comes to mind as these strong pieces unfold. The connective musical tissues, most of which are far more lightly scored, provide welcome contrast and summon other moods and emotions: melancholy, loss, homesickness, loneliness, and more. The central part of the first movement (for want of a better term) is the work’s largest single essay, consisting of three segments spread across two tracks and called “A Soldier’s Odyssey”; this could stand as a choice excerpt from the whole for use during patriotic or memorial concerts. Likewise, the second movement, “Faraway Lands, Ancient Times,” with its reflections on the composer’s personal heritage – “Slavic and Bulgarian folk tunes” and sounds of the region of her origin – would make an altogether admirable essay for use alongside popular 20th-century works by Enesco or Bartók or Kodály – yes, Kouneva’s music is often that good. The last movement is a summation of the strife and the ensuing challenges that face those who must internalize wartime experiences. There are moments of extreme melancholy in “Farewell to the Pilot” and still more in “Requiem.” The finale, “Airplane Bound for the Skies,” a song of hope, bringing optimism to the listener even if our ability to avoid violence over the long haul is, at best, ephemeral.

For the record, the solo pianist on the recording is the composer herself. The other players include a solo cellist, string quartet, horns, brass, percussion, various ethnic strings, and electronics.

Kouneva is a pacifist, but she has clearly been influenced by her keen perception of conflicts. As listeners enter into her special sound-world, it is apparent, too, that A Warrior’s Odyssey reflects Kouneva’s personal artistic journey to date in intensely autobiographical ways. All who know her should partake of this wonderful new work that combines the best of the worlds of contemporary orchestral writing with the proudest tradition of great cinematic music. And those who don’t yet know her music cannot go wrong with this splendid introduction.

For an interview with the composer, click here.