Is classical music a living, changing art, or is it frozen in time?
On Monday, Anastasia and pianist Elena Baksht will perform a concert entitled Chaconnes Through Time, at Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall. In addition to Bach's famous and beloved "Chaconne" from the D minor Partita for solo violin (which she will play in full), she will also perform the Vitali Chaconne, the little-known Partita for Solo Violin by Ernst Lothar von Knorr (Anastasia is known for uncovering such things). She will also perform world premiere of Colina’s "Chaconne for Violin and Piano," a piece in nine movements.
Michael and Anastasia met around eight years ago, when a mutual friend connected Anastasia's interest in contemporary music with Michael's style of writing music.
"At that point, Michael had a violin piece, called Notturno, which he needed played," Anastasia said. "I looked at it, and it was spectacularly lovely."
Both agree: Each piece they create together seems to bring up new ideas.
"One of the both blessings and curses of a performer is we are not creators. We need something to recreate," Anastasia said. A recording of "Baba Yaga" was released last fall, and the story behind it is a rather dark Russian fairy tale, which is not well-known in the West. Baba Yaga is a deformed old lady with supernatural powers, who eats children and lives in a hut that stands on chicken legs.
"We are also talking about the Baba Yaga being an older woman," Michael said. "Age itself is so often reviled -- beauty lost and loneliness found. This mythic character hits a spot for lots of people. She's not unlike the witch in Hansel and Gretel, but she has this side that can be redemptive, on rare occasions. She spares the life of this little girl, Vasilisa, who comes to visit her, and helps her, for lack of a better word, take revenge. But all of this is just the emotional life that goes on in creating the music. It's the story around which the music evolves."
Michael is a composer who returned to classical music after 20 years of producing jazz.
"I had stopped composing at 28 years of age and began producing jazz for artists and writing for them," Michael said. "I learned a huge amount from their spontaneity, their willingness to take risks, and their collaborative spirit. I worked with really great people. And at the point where the phone didn't ring any more, I decided that this was the opportune moment to re-find my voice that I'd left off discovering when I was 28. I came to this moment with all of this experience, working with these wonderful, malleable, creative risk-takers. I'd like to think that I brought that to the music I'm writing now -- certainly the collaborative spirit. Anastasia and I really hammer out certain passages, note-per-note."
"He's helped me discover the communicative aspect of the violin," Anastasia said of her collaboration with Michael. "It's one thing to play something that is 100 years old, which is intimately familiar. But a lot of contemporary music has lost sort of a human quality, so I would say he's reaffirmed my faith in the violin's ability to communicate just very bare, emotive, pre-human feelings."
It's also given her hope that there is a future for violin music. "It's very important to me to decide, even for interpretive issues, whether this is a tradition which is now held in amber, forever unchanging. Are we there just to serve history, as an occasional living reminder of what we once were? Or is this still a viable, living, thriving tradition?" Anastasia said. "Obviously, I have a vested interest in it being the latter. But as long as it is, it changes the way I interpret everything else."
"If your approach to Mozart, let's say, is: this is historical, this happened, this is no longer true, your interpretation will be one way," Anastasia said. "If you approach Mozart as: This could be written today, it just didn't happen to be, and I will play it as if I've never heard it before, that's a completely different set of interpretations -- and laws and regulations and issues of taste are often changed by it."
Anastasia's interpretation of the Bach Chaconne has evolved along with her thoughts about the role of music, past and present.
"I've been on a journey with the Bach Chaconne since I was 15 years old, and it's been a very important part of my life," she said. "Through it, I can trace my development as a human being. I've finally gotten an interpretation which I can say is completely mine. It's not unchanging, but the approach to the Chaconne, which I got about two years ago, is one I'm finally happy with. It is neither Romantic nor Classical, it's certainly not historically correct."
That approach has made it possible for her to see the Bach Chaconne as something new, every day.
"For instance, one of the things I like to do is that I look at all the variations -- there are 64 -- as separate entities," she said. "I've found that changing the tempos of the various variations, serves the piece very well, although again, it's not correct, it's not enshrined in the canon. But giving that piece its freedom to expand, to change from Monday to Friday, really brought it out. I just saw the way that audiences responded, and in the past year or two I've made it a personal challenge: that every note that I play should be, in my heart, like something I've never heard before."
Michael's new Chaconne evolved from their conversations about the meaning of the "chaconne," as a personal journey, as a musical framework, and as a dance form which originally came from Latin America.
"A Chaconne is one of the most perfect forms. It's sort of fractal," Anastasia said. "You have a very bare skeleton, which gives you some structure, but great freedom. As I started researching it more, I realized that the Chaconne actually came from Latin America -- Cuba -- and traveled to Spain. For Michael, his Cuban background is something that informs him both spiritually and creatively. So I found this coincidence to be striking."
The difference between the original dance and its evolution in Europe is also striking, especially as it took the form of Bach's great piece for solo violin.
"The Bach Chaconne is a tragic monument to great lost love," Anastasia said. "The chaconne started out being quite joyful -- and somewhat indecent, like many great things. It's very sensual."
"It started off as a dance, a bawdy dance done in bars, in 3/4 with the emphasis on beat 2, and usually with lyrics that were quite risque," Michael said. "Of course it comes back to Europe in the 1600's, and Bach makes this monumental work out of this and -- you can't touch that!"
Michael used the idea of the Chaconne as a launching point, including some of Bach's musical gestures, of ascending notes and descending notes meaning certain things spiritually. He also spells his name out, B-A-C-H, throughout the work, as well as adhering to the chord progression.
"Throughout this whole piece is woven all of these technical tools that I used to create it with," Michael said. "But at the same time, I wanted it to have a very appealing musical face that would still connect."
It's also a challenge for the violinist.
Michael writes at the piano and at the computer. Working on these projects, the two occasionally meet at his home in Florida.
"She would play this and then play that say, 'Why don't we do this?' and I would be recording it on the iPhone, on the video, so that I could take some of her suggestions back up to the studio and work on it more," Michael said. "So that's intensely collaborative."
When they can't meet in person, "he sends me the updated score by e-mail, I send the corrections right away," Anastasia said. "In Tchaikovsky's time this would take a boat and a few weeks, so the process is sped up."
Sometimes it helps not to be working face to face. It allows Anastasia to consider ideas, and whether they are playable, before responding.
"Sometimes he'll send me something and I'll start playing it, and at first I think, 'This is not playable,' but then I'll find sort of a cunning fingering for it," she said. "Whereas, if he were right there, I would say, 'No no, just change it.' So you actually wind up doing more of what the composer wants because you have some time to consider it."
Michael, though he has held a violin and knows how to play one, is primarily a pianist.
"You'll see this in Bartok, Prokofiev -- pianists think in fifths," Anastasia said. "We get four fingers, so a violinist will write things naturally in fourths. One of the central problems in adjusting to anything a pianist writes for you is that there's always an extra note, one second from where your fingers would naturally be. That does affect a lot of my editing."
Both composer and violinist welcome other musicians to have a hand at Michael's compositions, which are published by Bill Holab Music, on his website. (The Chaconne, with its premiere being tomorrow, will be published later.)
"That's actually the point! The point is to bring the music into standard repertoire," said Anastasia, who questions the adherence to the current canon of pieces featured in competitions and in auditions. Something like the Tchaikovsky Concerto is so overplayed, we can hardly appreciate it, she said. "The Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto is a fantastic work. I'm not sure we are even in a place to understand how fantastic it is because it's so constant in our lives. If there was more variety of repertoire, there would be more variety of interpretation and these works could then continue growing and being changes and reinterpreted. With the constant noise of the Oistrakh and the Heifetz and the Perlman and all the interpretations which hue to that tradition, the Tchaikovsky is frozen in time. It cannot grow, because it's ever-present."
"For me, it is essential that beautiful music continues to evolve and exist," Anastasia said. "If we close the door on beauty in music, (if we close the door on) virtuosity, which is part of that beauty, I think our existence will be immeasurably less rich. So we keep trying to keep defining what music is today. Not what it will be in 200 years, we have no control over that. But in the case of Chaconne, this is an attempt not to mimic Bach or even to play tribute to Bach, just to continue Bach."
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Here is Anastasia Khitruk, playing Michael Colina's "Baba Yaga Fantasia for Violin and Orchestra," Movement 1:
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