Classical CD Reviews

MICHAEL COLINA: Three Cabinets of Wonder – Fleur de Son

Michael Colina makes the transition from pop to classical music successfully, producing music that holds the interest and invites continued acquaintance.

Published on September 13, 2011

MICHAEL COLINA: Three Cabinets of Wonder – Fleur de Son

MICHAEL COLINA: Three Cabinets of Wonder (Concerto for Violin); Goyescana (Concerto for Guitar); Los Caprichos – Michael Andriaccio, guitar/ Anastasia Khitruk, violin/ London Symphony Orchestra/ Ira Levin – Fleur de Son Classics FDS 57999 [Distr. by Naxos], 71:41 ***(*):

Unlike classically-trained musicians who turn profitably to film, pop, or crossover music later in their careers, Michael Colina, who had previously racked up three Grammies and three records that went golden, took a radical turn in the opposite direction about ten years ago. For twenty years before that he had worked as writer and producer of albums for jazz and pop musicians such as David Sanborn and Bob James. But following a trip to his adoptive father’s native Cuba in 1999, Colina started to revisit his Latin American musical roots, having spent a good deal of time absorbing Cuban culture in his younger days.

Starting in 2006, Michael Colina shifted his attention to writing classical pieces with strong jazz and Latin-musical influences. On the evidence of this album titled Three Cabinets of Wonder, I’d say he’s making the transition successfully, producing music that holds the interest and invites continued acquaintance. In contradistinction to some pop musicians who have made forays into the world of classical music—Dave Brubeck, Paul McCartney, and Andrew Lloyd Webber come to mind—Molina seems genuinely committed to creating music that is classical in essence, rather than pop music with a veneer of classical formality. Then again, Colina received a thorough grounding in classical music through his studies at the North Carolina School of the Arts with Vittorio Giannini and Thomas Pasatieri, among others.

Like his teachers’, Colina’s style could be called neoromantic. It’s got hummable tunes, rich harmonies and orchestral effects, and an abiding belief in music’s power not just to intimately portray emotional states but to paint pictures. Colina writes, “In my youth I studied painting and I have always been deeply connected to images and color, my love of art emerged at the same time as my love of music. To the degree that images convey a story or feeling I immediately hear a corresponding musical world, one that seemingly co-exists in another dimension with the images; I’m simply acting as a translator.” That faith in the power of music to translate stories into “another dimension” may seem positively mid-nineteenth century, but in reality, Colina’s music sounds pretty up-to-date, thanks to that jazz influence and a fairly adventurous harmonic language. Whether Colina’s explanation of the genesis of the music, especially in the case of Three Cabinets of Wonder, will help, hinder, or little influence a listener’s enjoyment is up to individual taste.

After working my way through Colina’s dizzying program for the work, I finally just gave up and listened, but I’ll give a brief blow-by-blow here. The title comes from a book by Lawrence Weschler called Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder. It recounts the practice by sixteenth and seventeenth century scientists and adventurers of bringing back to Europe strange specimens from the New World and displaying them in museums; sometimes, of course, the objects were faked by the curators of these museums. Curiously, this idea is just a springboard for other musical conceits by Colina and really doesn’t seem to inform any of the three movements. The first movement, “Fanny’s Brother,” is an imagined tribute to Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel by her famous brother Felix. The second, “Buddha’s Assassin,” is set in a jungle in Thailand, where the Buddha fears he is stalked by a would-be assassin who turns out to be his lover. The third movement—well, the program of the third movement is so fanciful that it would take more space to describe than it will to critique the work. Not coincidentally, this last movement seems to be the most formless and rambling and could probably have done with some editing. It ends well, with a virtuoso cadenza and a razzle-dazzle coda, but the trip there is a little longwinded, it seems to me. However, the first movement has a haunted sort of melancholy that seems right for its purported subject, while the second movement, delicately colored by marimba and chimes, has cinematic appeal.

Goyescana continues Colina’s dialog with the art of painting, this time by way of musical quotation. In the last movement, Colina briefly quotes from Enrique Granados’ musical evocation of Goya’s La Maja. For most listeners, the allusion will be subtle, and in fact, the whole work seems a little out of focus to me. It starts with a slowish movement based on a blues-inflected tango, following this with an even slower Serenata that may be, as Colina states, the heart of the piece but for me is not especially compelling emotionally. The up-tempo last movement is a serious workout for the guitar soloist (a very fine Michael Andriaccio), but despite Colina’s claim that it’s based on a jota rhythm, it isn’t lively or piquant enough to stand comparison with the famous orchestral jotas by Glinka and Bizet. I guess it’s inevitable to compare a work such as Goyescana with the concertos of Rodrigo—and Goyescana sounds to me like Rodrigo Lite.

The most memorable music on the disc is Los Caprichos, based on the series of drawings of the same name by Francesco Goya. Out of Goya’s eighty drawings, Colina chooses eleven as his source of inspiration; they are some of the more grotesque and unsettling images in a series famous for its grotesquery. Here, Colina pulls out all the stops, applying a rich palette of orchestral colors, ratcheting up the emotional intensity especially in the two final numbers, Volaverunt and Sopla, the first portraying the Duchess of Alba borne aloft by witches, the latter the most obscenely grotesque of all the drawings; check it out on the Internet. If you do, you’ll see why I say that Colina provides suitably windy music for his finale.

Colina gets intensely committed support from his soloists, Anastasia Khitruk and Michael Andriaccio, as well as from Ira Levin, directing the excellent London Symphony with a painterly hand. The sound from London’s Abbey Road Studios is big and bold (if somewhat boomy) but betrays pop-influenced engineering decisions, including spotlighting of the soloists and added reverb. I’d prefer a more natural-sounding recording, but this should appeal to the crossover audience that Colina will most likely attract. Anyway, the music impresses, and that’s what counts.

—Lee Passarella




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