Kelsey Burritt | Staff Writer
Saturday night, the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra will perform the world premiere of Michael Colina’s “Baba Yaga: Fantasia for Violin and Orchestra.” It will be guest conductor Ira Levin’s American debut, and violinist Anastasia Khitruk’s first time performing on the Amphitheater stage.
The piece is a product of a rare three-part collaboration, in which Colina did most of the creative heavy-lifting, but Levin offered suggestions on orchestration, and Khitruk was given a voice in the violin part, especially the cadenzas. The three also collaborated together on the recording of Colina’s “Three Cabinets of Wonder,” a violin concerto recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra in 2010. “Baba Yaga” has also been recorded with the London Symphony and is due to release this fall.
Colina has had a bustling career, working in almost every medium for music, including television and film, but spent most of his career working as a jazz producer and composer. He has won three Grammy Awards and collaborated with artists such as James Taylor, Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock.
After studying with Max Rudolf at the Curtis Institute of Music, Levin first worked as an associate conductor at the Frankfurt Opera. He continued to work with operas and symphonies throughout the world, but has not found a way back to his home country until now. Levin has known Colina for about 25 years and has commissioned several of his concert works in the last five to 10 years.
“Many of his more recent works are wonderful. I certainly enjoy conducting them, and I think they’re very impressive,” Levin said. “They’re approachable for the audience without being condescending or too simplistic. It’s not easy music, but it’s work that speaks easily to audiences.”
“He has been behind me as a composer,” Colina said of Levin. “I think that’s important these days — that you have champions of your music, people who are willing to take a risk and present your music to the world.”
Khitruk and Colina share a fascination with mythology, and Colina said the Russian folktale of Baba Yaga appealed to him for its darkness and complexity.
“I’m always interested in narratives,” Colina said. “I like to tell stories in my music, and they don’t have to be with words.”
Baba Yaga is a mythical figure who lives in a hut on chicken legs, rides around in a mortar or a butter churn and eats children. When mothers wanted to frighten their children, Colina said, they would tell them if they would not behave, they would be sent to Baba Yaga. But some tales revealed another side to Baba Yaga.
“On occasion, and god knows why, she would let people go free, give them wisdom, give them advice or give them a tool to set things straight out in the world,” Colina said.
Such an occasion is played out in this piece, based on the story of Vasilisa, a beautiful girl who runs away from her evil stepmother and stepsisters into the woods. When she encounters Baba Yaga, the old hag agrees to help Vasilisa enact her revenge after she completes a series of tasks.
The first movement of the piece describes Vasilisa’s experience wandering about in the wood, what Khitruk describes as beginning and ending with beauty. The next movement is the Baba Yaga movement, which has more drive and energy.
“After all of this hostility, there’s this gorgeous lyrical part,” Khitruk said. “Because Michael was clearly thinking, ‘If she ever was that maiden, she must remember.’ It’s very romantic in a nostalgic and sad way. And then of course, she goes back to being her evil, cackling little self.”
Khitruk said there was a balance of power in the piece, in that although Baba Yaga had lost her power as a beautiful woman, she was trying to regain it in other ways.
“It’s less about the inevitable loss of beauty,” Khitruk said. “It’s more about the various kinds of power that women can have. Michael is one of those very rare men who really understands women.”
Colina has various ways in which he begins to write a piece — random snatches of music that enter his mind, music he hears in his dreams or simply clunking it out in front of a piano. He said this music came to him easily.
“Once it got started, it was as if it was already written, and all I was trying to do was copy it down,” Colina said.
In 2007, Colina was commissioned to write a piece for the New Arts Trio in Chautauqua, called the Idoru Trio. Finally working with longtime friend and pianist Rebecca Penneys was a fulfilling and moving experience, he said.
Although Colina had been a jazz composer for most of his life, in 2001, he decided that he was only going to compose the type of music that he wanted. After an impacting visit to his native Cuba with his father in 1999, Colina reconnected with his roots and began to write music that blended Latin and classical styles.
“Baba Yaga,” however, does not sound Latin, nor does it sound expressly Russian, although the roots of the tale are Russian.
“It sounds like — like any good composer — it sounds like Michael Colina,” Khitruk said.
Khitruk said for a long time she was looking for a composer she could serve as a muse for, because her violin playing and views on music do not always align with her other colleagues.
Nominated for a Grammy in 2007 for her recording of Miklos Rosza’s violin concerto, Khitruk has become known for advocating lesser-known and contemporary composers, performing widely throughout Europe and the United States.
“I do not record any standard repertoire anymore,” Khitruk said. “They’ve been done really, really well. I don’t know what I have to add.”
When approaching a brand new piece that nobody has played before, she said she is able to hear the perfect version in her mind, without previous interpretations of the piece clouding her view.
“If it’s never been played before, this view of perfection is exclusively yours,” Khitruk said. “As a performer and a musician, it forces you to really confront yourself.”
Levin chose the accompanying pieces on the program, Glinka’s “Russlan and Ludmilla: Overture” and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, to frame Colina’s piece.
“I thought since the Colina is based on the Russian legend of Baba Yaga, it would make sense to have a Russian program,” Levin said.
The Glinka is the overture of an opera not often performed — mostly because of the difficulty of programming an opera in the Russian language — but Levin said it is one of the most brilliant opera overtures.
Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 is an unquestionable classic, although it is simpler than his Fourth or perhaps First Symphony, Levin said.
“More complicated doesn’t mean better. It’s full of ambiguities,” Levin said.
When the piece premiered, it was embraced by an audience suffering under Stalin’s reign, almost all of whom knew people who had been sent to the Gulag or disappeared in the night.
“At the premiere, there were many people in tears, and they knew what the music meant, because they were living it,” Levin said.
The ending, with a series of A notes hammered out, is meant to be triumphant, but it is a forced triumph. Levin likened it to someone being beaten on the head and told to be happy again and again.
“The audience that listened to that back in 1936 understood that, and they went crazy,” Levin said. “They applauded for 30 minutes after the symphony.”