Michael Colina inhabits several worlds: not only classical music, but pop, jazz and world music.
He has worked with musicians including George Benson, Herbie Hancock, Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor. He has won three Grammy Awards, one for Latin music and two for CDs with David Sanborn.
Though he lives in Florida and spent a lot of his childhood in Cuba, he is no stranger to Buffalo. In 2010, Colina was a judge for the JoAnn Falletta International Guitar Concerto Competition, and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra premiered his piece “Mambosa.” Colina’s guitar concerto, called “Goyescana,” is a homage to the painter Goya. It was premiered on the Buffalo label Fleur de Son, performed by Buffalo guitarist Michael Andriaccio and the London Symphony Orchestra.
On Tuesday, a new cello concerto by Colina will be premiered at the Chautauqua Institution by the renowned cellist Sharon Robinson. (Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony also is on the program.)
Colina’s concerto is called “Three Dances for Cello and Orchestra.” Robinson will be performing it with the Chautauqua Symphony conducted by her husband, Jaime Laredo.
Colina will be there for the occasion. He and Robinson are old friends, he explained on the phone.
“I always find it inspiring to work with someone I’ve worked with for a long time, to renew our friendship through music,” he said.
It was time, he thought, to write the cello concerto. That reminds him of a Western New York tie-in: Years ago, he wrote a piano trio for pianist Rebecca Penneys and the New Arts Trio.
“I think they read through it – it wasn’t up to snuff,” he says. “Many years go by. I thought, I’m going to write something for her trio, see if I’m any better. So I did.” Penneys and her trio performed the piece in Chautauqua in 2007. “It turned out to be a wonderful event, emotional for Rebecca and me.”
Something similar, Colina said, happened with Robinson.
“I’m 64, you start to have a different approach to life, you want to make music that’s meaningful in and of itself, share it with people who mean something to you. I think young performers and composers have to wait to get there. There’s no way to get there, other than by spending time on this planet. You also have a bunch of life water flow under the bridge, so you have something different to say.”
Andriaccio, who was introduced to him by Penneys, was struck by Colina’s humility while recording the atmospheric “Goyescana.”
“He asked, ‘Are there any changes you would suggest?’ He was so accommodating,” he said. “Who am I to be second-guessing what he was coming up with? I thought that was fabulous.”
Next year, “Goyescana” will take its place on the list of concertos guitarists may play for the Falletta Competition. Andriacco and his wife, guitarist Joanne Castellani, are the competition’s artistic directors.
“It was Leonard Bernstein who said, ‘Every composer spends his life writing the same piece,’ and when you think about it, that’s the way it is,” Andriaccio said. “But Michael’s music, because of his background, it varies from piece to piece.”
Though Colina has academic training, he does not identify with academia or the avant-garde experimentalism that often leaves listeners at sea. On the phone, he explained he draws inspiration from “popular” artists.
“George Benson, Bob James – it’s been inspiring to work with these guys who love to put themselves on the line every night,” he said. “They make their stuff up on the spur of the moment – within reason, in a jazz tune, they have melody, they take solos – but I always admired their willingness to take risks.
“And the other most important thing that I think I gained is, they always wanted to connect with their audience. Their audience was not something they ignored, or that spoke over their heads. They wanted their connection with the audience.”
“Three Dances For Cello and Orchestra,” Colina explained, reflects three different cultures.
The first movement, “Ragas to Riches,” channels India. The last movement, “Slavic Sisters,” pays lively tribute to Slavic dances. The middle movement is “It’s Snowing in Cuba.”
“It’s the heart of the work,” Colina said. “It’s a habanera, and it’s very romantic and very sad. Everything in Cuba is frozen in time, to me, frozen politically. All the people are stuck in a way of being – the poverty, the inequality. I have family still there.”
Colina speaks in musical, measured tones. He sounds like a man who is sunny and content.
He is married to Robin Halpin, a jewelry designer. Their children are grown, and now, Colina and his wife create. “We work in the same home, we’ve got our own studios, we agree to go to work, and it’s ‘Don’t mess with me while I’m working,’ ” Colina laughed. “At the end of the day we come to be together. We have a great respect for creative process.”
His happiness makes it all the more poignant when he tells of visiting Cuba with his father, and sorrow creeps into his voice.
“He and I hadn’t been there for 40 years,” Colina says. “We stayed in a cousin’s house in Havana, a house they no longer owned. They owned it in 1958, and now they were required to pay $200 a month. He made $200 a month driving an ice cream truck. He made just enough to pay the government to live in his own house.
“They threw a mattress on the floor, and gave us the only sheets, the only fans in the house. They made dinner for us every night, frijoles negros (black beans). It took me two nights to realize that no one was eating except me and my father. I was so slow and dim-witted, I didn’t realize what was happening. … So that’s the inside reality for those people. You don’t put it together, if you’re a tourist.”
In his concerto, Colina tries to convey the resilient spirit of Cubans.
“When they make music, they express their – I don’t know, something life affirming and joyous, as if, we’re going to get through this no matter what. A drum or a conga starts playing, and the kids start dancing ... You have to transform the one feeling into an expression that contains both beauty and poignancy and the sadness and the joy, a big salad of mixed emotions. That’s why I call it the heart of the piece.
“I think it’ll make a nice balance,” he adds. “The other two movements are more lighthearted and playful. The middle movement is romantic and dark and painful and beautiful, all at the same time.”