Having left an indelible mark in contemporary jazz, multiple Grammy-winning composer and producer Michael Colina set off to conquer a different musical world. And conquer he has. Over the past decade, he has devoted his considerable talent to classical composition, a transition few have accomplished with as much success. This November, two of Colina’s works will have their world premieres, the first at the Weill Recital Hall at New York’s Carnegie Hall and the second with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at London’s Cadogan Hall.
On November 14, “Baba Yaga” makes its debut in a recital featuring internationally renowned violinist Anastasia Khitruk. The violin concerto was written in close collaboration with Khitruk, a Grammy nominee whose fiery intensity and lush colorings often inspire Colina’s music. The two-movement work—with the violinist accompanied solely by piano for this performance–is based on well-known Slavic folk tales.
The usually malevolent witch Baba Yaga has a lighter side in Colina’s interpretation. The first movement is both bitter and sweet, guided by a delicate melodic theme. The piece ends in a dark yet still playful scherzo that shows off Khitruk’s impeccable technique. The program also includes Colina’s “Der Golem,” another work written specifically for the violinist.
Then on November 29, Richard Bernas conducts London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and soloist Khitruk in the world premiere performance of Colina’s “Three Cabinets of Wonder.” A concerto for violin and orchestra in three movements, the work’s narrative and musical lines take twists and turns in time and texture. It begins with Colina channeling his inner Mendelssohn, wends its way into Thailand and a Buddhist theme and climaxes with a mystical encounter in the Amazon. The CD with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ira Levin was released earlier this year.
“When one listens to the London Symphony Orchestra perform “Three Cabinets of Wonder” one would think one has stumbled on a forgotten master of the first half of the 20th century,” one classical/jazz critic blogged. “The music has full maturity and a way with the orchestra that belies the fact that these are some of his first works devoted to the medium.”
Though long recognized as a producer and writer on recordings for musicians Bob James, David Sanborn, Michael Brecker, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, Bill Evans and Michael Franks, among others, the classically trained Colina concluded “given changes in the music business it was time for me to free my own voice and say what I wanted to say. I wanted a broader canvas.”
A polymath—he’s studied sculpture and written poetry–Colina was also profoundly influenced by a trip with his Cuban-born father in 1999. Perhaps that’s why he can so smoothly stir Cuban accents into classical compositions flecked with jazz, creating a style full of infectious rhythms and joie de vivre. But the music is not without a darker, dramatic edge, tension and then release. Unafraid of bold, beautiful melodies that speak to tradition, Colina also balances linear content with artistic impressions and imagery that express a wide-reaching imaginative soul.
“Traveling back to Cuba was a reawakening of the music I had heard around me as a child,” says Colina, himself a native of North Carolina. “I had been flirting with Latin influences but now I made a more conscious decision to include those rhythms, melodies and styles into some of my work.”
For Colina, composing within the classical idiom is like writing a novel; jazz more of a short story. “When you’re writing for jazz, you’re giving artists a platform for improvisation,” he notes. “In classical, you write every note, every nuance and you rely on the artistry of the musician to bring your vision to life.”
The “rhythmic energy, some of it Latin-flavored, and its inventive orchestration, readily engage the ear and the music never wears out its welcome,” remarked a Toronto Star critic of Colina’s “Los Caprichos,” commissioned—as he frequently is—this time by the National Orchestra of Brazil to mark the 9/11 tragedy and based on the prints of Francisco Goya.
Says Khitruk: “Michael has a way of bridging and transcending styles of music. Because he understands in a deeply organic way the internal structure of music itself, this never seems forced or trite.”
“I think there is an invisible world alive inside my music,” he adds. “You simply must experience it, something familiar yet unfamiliar.” The result is a new, original and wonderfully appealing musical voice.
Colina’s other recent compositions and commissions include: “Unbearable Lightness of Being,” for String Orchestra, recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra and Ira Levin conducting; “Biaon de Bayo,” commissioned by the Quintet of the Americas;
“Goyescana,” a concerto for guitar and orchestra commissioned by Robert Phillips and performed with Florida’s Imperial Symphony Orchestra; a quintet for piano, violin, cello, flute and clarinet; “Shadow of Urbano,” for solo piano and string quintet, first performed by pianist Bob James and the Quartet San Francisco; “Mambosa,” by Canta Libre Chamber Ensemble; and “The Idoru Piano Trio” for piano, violin and cello, commissioned by the New Arts Trio and premiered at the Chautauqua Institution.