Notes and Editorial Reviews
COLINA Baba Yaga, Fantasia for Violin and Orchestra.1 The Unbearable Lightness of Being.2 Quinta Del Sordo.2 Isles of Shoals3 • 1,2Ira Levin, cond; 3Ransom Wilson, cond; 1Anastasia Khitruk (vn); 3 ?ukasz D?ugosz
(fl); London SO • FLEUR DE SON 58018 (69:56)
This CD, entitled Baba Yaga, presents four works by Michael Colina, a composer formerly unknown to me. Aside from his classical training, Colina (according to the liner notes) has done something most composers have not, worked as a producer and recording engineer for such diverse musicians as Bob James, David Sanborn, Michael Becker, Bill Evans (the saxophonist, not the pianist), and Michael Franks. He has also worked with George Benson, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, and Bonnie Raitt, and written music for TV, film, theater, dance, and live concert performances. He has also won three Gold Records and three Grammys in the field of contemporary jazz; you can see he is a man who wears many hats.
As might be expected from such a background, Colina’s music is resolutely tonal. In fact, Baba Yaga so closely resembles a late-romantic Russian violin concerto that it might have been written by Glazunov or Rachmaninoff, despite the occasional veering into “sideways” tonalities that suggest a slightly more modern bent. But I must quickly add that this is good music—it is not “classics lite,” nor is it repetitive or predictable. Perhaps his jazz musician’s training has led him to insert moments of the unexpected into his scores; at any rate, the opening movement of Baba Yaga, titled “Vasalisa,” is based on the legend of a young woman who lives with a wicked stepmother and stepsisters who throw her into the woods to be eaten by the evil Baba. After a lyrical beginning, the music soon moves into a brief explosive outburst before returning to the rather serene solo violin. Our soloist, Khitruk, has a somewhat edgy tone but excellent technique and, more importantly, excellent emotional expression (though her photo in the booklet has a curiously zombie-like appearance). There was one moment when the music relaxes and soft brasses and winds play behind the soloist when I felt the music was going in a movie-music direction, but once again Colina pulls it out of this somewhat sugary morass. The ensuing violin solo, played a cappella, has an interesting edgy quality about it, which Khitruk elicits perfectly, moving from a long-held trill to staccato articulations, after which the orchestra reenters and builds to yet another loud climax.
The second movement, “Hut with fowl’s legs,” depicts our intrepid heroine Vasalina (no relationship to petroleum jelly) in her encounter with Baba Yaga. Thanks to a magic doll given to her by her birth mother, Vasalina wins Baba’s respect and even the gift of a skull with burning eye sockets which, when she returns home, burns up the wicked stepfamily. This movement is, naturally, rather more dramatic than the first. The melodic fragments are more terse and compact; themes quickly juxtapose themselves against each other and build, again, into an emotional violin solo and then into a sort of eerie scherzo with the orchestra somewhat reminiscent of tone poems by Dvo?ák.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being is based on a novel by Czech writer Milan Kundera set against the background of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. On the surface, the book involves a womanizing doctor who becomes involved with a waitress whom he later marries, but its subtext involves a series of philosophical and existential discussions, one of which is the philosophy of Parmenides, who “saw the world divided into pairs of opposites: light/darkness, finesse/coarseness, warmth/cold, being/non-being.” Parmenides grouped these opposing forces as positive and negative, which, as Kundera says, seems “childishly simple except for one difficulty: which one is positive, weight or lightness?” Colina’s music here is slow-moving and harmonically related to the sound worlds of Mahler and Roy Harris; after a relatively quiet opening, it again builds to large orchestral climaxes, somewhat muted here in that they are played exclusively by strings. Again, Khitruk is our violin soloist, but this time her contribution is briefer, more like a soloist in a concerto grosso.
Quinta del Sordo was inspired by the “Black Paintings” of Francisco Goya. Colina, who is himself of Spanish-Cuban heritage, employs a number of Latin rhythms in creating a rather large and exciting, but by no means ostentatious or noisy, symphonic poem. Here, again, his chameleon-like ability to reinvent his style puts this specific work in the same genre as similar works of Ponce or Halffter. The only consistent trait one can really point to in all of these works so far is that he enjoys creating contrasts of volume as well as of mood. (I also found, in this piece, a certain kinship in places to Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez.) Again without being bombastic, Colina builds up to some tremendous orchestral climaxes, all of which move the music forward and none seem gratuitous.
Colina’s flute concerto, Isles of Shoals, is his homage to the first arts community in America, hosted by the beautiful and popular poet Celia Thaxter on the largest island off the coast of New Hampshire. This colony, which lasted until 1912 but had its peak between 1850 and 1895, included such visitors as Edward McDowell, John Knowles Paine, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, and Phoebe Jenks. Here, again, Colina is wearing a different stylistic hat, this time more in the impressionistic vein of Debussy, Ravel, or even Roussel, employing unusual chords and orchestral colors to convey sounds both light and oceanic in quality. Indeed, I personally felt that in some respects Colina was recapturing as much the fact that this colony existed on an island, and was thereby subject to oceanic tides and the like, as much as he was to the long discussions, poetry readings, and musical soirées held mostly in the summers. The composer’s use of the titles “Sheep may safely graze” in the second movement and “Danze Macabre” in the third also alludes to the events that transpired there: the fruitful and inspirational meetings in the first, and in the second the strange ending of the colony, when a “mysterious fire” destroyed Celia’s cottage and the main hotel. Colina is a good enough composer to avoid having to use or paraphrase Bach in the second movement until near the end, and he very cleverly uses a variant of Saint-Saëns’s piece in the third, yet he evokes their moods with his wonderful melodic gift and excellent sense of orchestral color. ?ukasz D?ugosz is an excellent flautist, and Ransom Wilson replaces Ira Levin here as conductor of the London Symphony.
I was absolutely captivated by this CD. Here is modern music that is not only tonal but also intellectually intriguing, often happy and life-affirming, a kind of music you scarcely if ever hear nowadays. I cannot recommend this one highly enough, which means you can be sure that it will be strongly considered for my 2013 Want List!
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley Read less
Works on This Recording
Baba Yaga by Michael Colina
Anastasia Khitruk (Violin)
London Symphony Orchestra
Isles of Shoals by Michael Colina
Lukasz Dlugosz (Flute)
London Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 2004; USA
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