Classical CD Reviews

PAUL CHIHARA, Vol. 2 = Concerto Piccolo (for four violas); Viola Concerto (in one movement); Redwood (for viola and percussion); Sonata for Viola and Piano – Bridge
MICHAEL DALMAN COLINA: Baba Yaga, Fantasia for Violin & Orchestra;The Unbearable Lightness of Being; Quinta Del Sordo: Symphonic Poem for Orchestra; Isles of Shoals Concerto for Flute & Orch. – Fleur de Son Classics

Two contemporary American composers who approach the fusion of classical and popular music from different directions.

Published on June 15, 2013

PAUL CHIHARA, Vol. 2 = Concerto Piccolo (for four violas); Viola Concerto (in one movement); Redwood (for viola and percussion); Sonata for Viola and Piano – Paul Coletti, Ben Ullery, Gina Colletti, and Zach Dellinger, violas / Jack Van Geem, percussion/ Vivian Fan, p./ The Colburn Orch./ Yahuda Gilad – Bridge 9365, 54:43 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

MICHAEL DALMAN COLINA: Baba Yaga, Fantasia for Violin & Orchestra;The Unbearable Lightness of Being; Quinta Del Sordo: Symphonic Poem for Orchestra; Isles of Shoals Concerto for Flute & Orch. – Anastasia Khitruk, v. / Łukasz Długosz, flute / London Sym. Orch./ Ira Levin & Ransom Wilson, conds. – Fleur de Son Classics FDS 58018, 69:00 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Here are a couple programs of pieces, including concerted works, by two composers who fuse classical and popular music in uniquely successful ways. Interestingly, the composers approached this fusion from rather different directions. Though Paul Chihara maintains that he was mostly self-taught as a composer, he also managed to study with Nadia Boulanger and Gunther Schuller, two keepers of the modernist musical flame. Chihara started his compositional career as a confirmed avant-gardist, and some of his earlier music, such as his cello-concerto-in-all-but-name Wind Song might still challenge the ears of conservative listeners. But Chihara’s many assignments writing music for films and television seem to have softened that earlier avant edginess and broadened his musical vistas.

Michael Dalman Colina, on the other hand, has worked as a recording engineer and producer for pop music stars, also composing extensively for stage, screen, and television over the course of three decades. However, he’s a classically-trained musician, having studied with Vittorio Giannini at the North Carolina School for the Arts. It seems that a trip to Cuba with his father in 1999 recalled to him his childhood spent in Cuba and led to a series of compositions that incorporate the colors and rhythms of Latin American popular music.

Of the works on the disc from Bridge, one, Redwood, was written as long ago as 1966, while Chihara was studying with Schuller at Tanglewood, and it is atonal, in the prevailing style of the time, but with colorful, highly syncopated contributions from the percussion that seem to foreshadow his later style, best represented here by the Viola Concerto, commissioned in 1987 by the Cleveland Orchestra’s First Violist Robert Vernon. Initially, Chiara intended to model the concerto on Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, envisioning a three-movement work with a dashing virtuoso finale. Work on the concerto stalled, however, when Chiara became ill during the 1990s. When he took up the concerto again, his model had shifted from Germany to France, to the Poème by Ernest Chausson. Thus the concerto became a one-movement affair, more ruminative and reflective than showy, though there are show-off moments, to be sure, for both soloist and orchestra in the section of the work entitled Waltz. The reflective nature of the piece is, well, reflected in the fact that Chihara quotes from earlier pieces of music, his own and those of other composers, including Berg (from Wozzeck) and Debussy (from Prélude a l’après-midi d’un faune). Although it isn’t made clear from the notes to this recording, it seems that following the 2008 premiere of the work with the Cleveland Orchestra, Chihara borrowed the Allegro amabile finale of his own Viola Sonata to give the final section of the concerto the kind of virtuoso flourish he had envisioned for it originally.

The two works are intertwined in more ways than just that one, however. During his illness, when he despaired of completing the concerto, Chihara decided to write the sonata as “a love letter to his violist wife, Carol. . . .” A very tender work it is, too, abounding in melodies, one of which is another self-borrowing, a love song drawn from Chihara’s musical Shogun. Originally, the sonata ended with the gentle second-movement Tempo di menuetto, but Chihara added the lively Allegro amabile finale in 2009.

Though it sounds like the product of a single inspiration, the Concerto Piccolo is comprised of four movements all of which sprang from different commissions. My favorite bit is the spritely Tarantella first movement, commissioned by violist and teacher Tim Deighton. By the way, the same melody that dominates the Allegro amabile of both the solo concerto and sonata shows up in the third movement of the Concerto Piccolo. Apparently, Chiara thinks pretty highly of it.

The playing here, by violist Paul Coletti and friends, is very fine, as is the remarkable performance by the Colburn Orchestra, made up of students at the Colburn School in Los Angeles, where the excellent recording was made. Chihara’s music may be a bit cloying for some musical tastes, but for listeners who find the tonal and the tuneful not inconsistent with the ideals of contemporary music, there’s much here to enjoy.


This is my second experience of the music of Michael Dalman Colina—I earlier reviewed his Three Cabinets of Wonder—and I have to say that I’m more favorably impressed than I was on first acquaintance. All the works on the present disc (as on that other disc as well) have programmatic overtones, literature and painting being the main points of reference. The dreadful Baba Yaga of Russian folktales is familiar through her appearance in Pictures at an Exhibition and Anatol Liadov’s eponymously named tone poem. Her crazy house on fowl’s legs is the inspiration for the second movement of Colina’s fantasia for violin and orchestra. Intriguingly, however, the first movement deals with another aspect of her character as recounted in some tales. Here, she’s portrayed in a more positive light, as a compassionate being, and the first movement, entitled Vasalisa, deals with Baba Yaga’s coming to the aid of a beautiful young woman whose wicked stepmother and stepsisters try to get rid of her by sending her into the clutches of none other than—Baba Yaga herself. She turns the tables on these villains by giving Vasalisa a magic skull with eye sockets that must emit laser beams or something like it: when Vasalisa returns home with the skull, it proceeds to burn up the stepmother and her conniving daughters.

The first movement of Colina’s Baba Yaga is spookily compelling, though I can’t say that it conveys to me any of the gruesome details of Vasalisa’s story. Just as well, perhaps. The second movement is a little tame in portraying the hut on fowl’s legs, especially compared to Mussorgsky’s crash-bang version of the tale, and it’s something of a letdown after the first movement. Still, taken on its own merits, it’s an amiable scherzo-like affair—setting aside the program that Colina has saddled himself with.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being for string orchestra apparently has a connection to the novel of the same name by Milan Kundera. Again, you couldn’t prove it by me, but the music is certainly evocative. For Quinto Del Sordo, we travel from Czechoslovakia to Spain, to the Villa of the Deaf Man, the estate in Madrid where Francisco Goya painted his shocking Black Pictures. The locale gives Colina an excuse to inject dancing Latin rhythms and bright orchestral colors into the piece.

Last on the program is the Isle of Shoals concerto, which was inspired by a story Colina read concerning an artist colony on the Island of Appledore off the coast of New Hampshire. It hosted the likes of Edward McDowell, Ignace Paderewski, and Helen Keller before a fire destroyed the main buildings on the island and put an end to the colony. The first movement of the piece has a dreamily nostalgic air about it, while the second movement, a fantasia on “Sheep May Safely Graze,” hints at the bucolic nature of the setting. But given the sad circumstances that befell the colony, it makes for ironic commentary as well. The last movement, marked Danze Macabre, brings the piece to a lively close; I suppose it has something to do with the fire that consumed the colony.

As you can see, I’m kind of skeptical about Colina’s tone painting—but then so am I about tone-painting in general, one of the great Forlorn Hopes of musical history. But I find Colina’s music attractive and colorful, as well as expertly put together. This is music I want to come back to.

The performances are all first-rate, both violinist Anastasia Khitruk and flutist Lukasz Dlugosz dancing in lively fashion to Colina’s tunes. The Danze Macabre invites the flutist to get in some truly virtuoso licks. The London Symphony is in top form throughout, and Ransom Wilson, himself a flutist of course, proves a sympathetic accompanist as conductor. While the soloists are miked a bit too closely, the recording—engineered by veterans Simon Rhodes and Tony Faulkner—captures the orchestra thrillingly.

—Lee Passarella




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