Paul Coletti writes viola music from the heart

By Helen Callus

For many of us, Paul Coletti is a familiar figure in the viola world. He is considered to be one of this generation’s most creative and artistic classical performers, constantly reinventing himself and the possibilities of the instrument. He has an impressive catalog of more than 25 recordings and a distinguished 25-year career as a chamber-music artist, solo recitalist, concerto soloist, composer, and professor of viola. Coletti often takes the road less traveled, intentionally, to expand and develop every area of his artistic abilities.

This road frequently leads Coletti to major successes. One was the phenomenal accomplishments of Typhoon 4, a piano quartet he cofounded featuring Iwao Furusawa on violin, Francis Gouton on cello, and Phillip Bush on piano. The ensemble enjoyed two chart-topping CDs in Japan, embracing works from the classical repertoire, but adding jazz and tango material in a setting much like that of a pop concert. This fusion of classical and mainstream music reinforced Coletti’s own strong belief that the future of classical music depends on learning important lessons from other successful fields.

Having known Coletti for 14 years, I’ve seen firsthand his experimentation in the classical repertoire–in particular his improvisational skills in performances of Bach. Coletti himself attributes his early forays into the world of composition to his student years at the Menuhin Academy in Switzerland. His first work was a short string quartet that was performed by students of the school. He often arranged works for his friends in the academy’s resident chamber orchestra, Camerata Lysy, of which he was also a member. The Camerata had an impressive performing and recording career of its own. In that environment he was encouraged to write his own cadenzas, something he continues to teach his students to do. He also began to experiment more and more with improvisation.

Turning Points

Coletti first heard classical music when he was 14, a turning point for him musically and the beginning of his journey as a classical violist. A chance encounter with pianist Claude Bolling at a festival in St. Barts in the Caribbean led him back to his jazz roots. Coletti’s father was an amateur jazz musician and he says that all his early musical experiences were with jazz, and hold special memories for him of spending time with his father.

When Typhoon 4 was at its creative peak in the ’90s, Coletti was working with colleagues who were continually adjusting the repertoire and arranging beautiful standards for new combinations. It was with Typhoon 4 that he pulled all his experiences together, heralding the start of a new direction, one that Coletti is enjoying today as an artist–that of published composer.

On Typhoon’s highly successful Epic/Sony recordings you’ll find three of Coletti’s compositions: "From My Heart," "Blue Tango," and "Circus." Oxford University Press published these works in a 2003 collection entitled "Three Pieces for Viola and Piano" (ISBN 0-19-386600-5). Each work in the collection provides violists with a wonderful addition to the repertoire, especially if your interest lies outside of the strictly classical realm. The third work in the series, "Circus," looks daunting on paper, but upon more careful examination you’ll find that it is deceptively clever. It has all the traits of a colorful show of circus acts but without the technical demands. The tricky chromatics and string crossings are written by a violist who clearly understands the most comfortable and effective way to play the instrument.

Though not for the beginner, this collection will be accessible to many violists. My favorite is "From My Heart." which I am programming in future recitals (an excerpt appears on pages 26 and 27). Coletti wrote the piece after the death of his father in the summer of 1993. Its beautiful melodies hark back to childhood and such songs as Duke Ellington’s "Sophisticated Lady" (beginning in the piano in measure 8), Harold Arlen’s "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" (measure 69), and a quote from Ravel’s "Pièce en Forme de Habanera" (measure 82). Coletti says that these were some of his father’s favorites and he has no regrets that he borrowed from their beauty. The opening measures are reminiscent of Stéphane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt’s "Nuages."

The Inspiration

A few weeks after his father passed away, Coletti was in his hometown of Edinburgh, Scotland, for a photo shoot at the Balmoral Hotel to promote a festival called "Music in Blair Athol." There he had an encounter that brought the memory of his father rushing back to him. Two weeks later, while traveling in Italy with his mother, they visited her birth village of Montaquila, where a melody began to haunt him. He wrote the entire work with all its harmonies on the viola first. Then he went to the piano to complete the details and chords, matching perfectly every nuance to the melody that he had heard in Italy. Once notated in its original form of piano trio and solo viola, he took it on the road to Japan with Typhoon 4. His colleagues contributed the final details to the work in preparation for their performances.

The song garners its power from its simple construction. "From My Heart" is an example of a short, well-written bonbon the likes of which we have not seen since Rebecca Clarke’s "Morpheus" and her other shorter works. Coletti’s composition style is quite different from Clarke’s, but it has the same sensibility of gesture. As with Clarke’s "I’ll Bid My Heart Be Still" [see Strings, April 2003], "From My Heart" was written with a particular experience in mind and conveys one of our most human experiences: sincere and honest love.

Using all manner of effects and gestures we get to stretch our technical prowess in the safest environment possible and pay homage to our own idols. This is a beautiful work that should be added to our repertoire, not just for the concert stage but for our own enjoyment as well.

Coletti believes that "From My Heart" is the final gift from his father and it has allowed him to reconcile his grief. I feel that any great music connects and embraces us as a whole. Not what you would expect from a classical violist, perhaps, but then you could never call Coletti a traditional classical violist.