With a luminous octave ‘C’, it was over. Not just the magnificent 50 minute long String Quintet of Franz Schubert, but my season with the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival. The music was of course vital to the experience, but not necessarily central to it. Because chamber music is, above all, about the musicians. How they interact both onstage, in the rehearsal period, and in those many informal moments shared over a simple meal, a glass of wine, and warm evenings on a porch.
I can’t think of a festival where I have felt quite as welcomed and ‘at home’ as I have here. It’s a family affair – husband and wife team Leo Eguchi and Sasha Callahan, Sasha’s mother Susan, and father John; and her sister Eve, and her husband Scott. They have all made this festival so very special, along with their friends, especially winemakers Jay Somers and Ronda Newell-Somers of J. Christopher Wines, who made their extraordinary barrel room available for two entire weekends.
What I love the most about chamber music is that making it well gets you inside of someone’s head – that you’ve never met before, or maybe knew but not very well – in a way that for non-musicians can take years to happen. There’s an intimacy there, and it’s no accident that one of my teachers, the late, great Michael Tree, said that a string quartet is a marriage with four partners. So, I feel extraordinarily lucky that I got to mind-meld with Leo, Sasha, Megumi, Greg, Kenji, Amelia, and Marilyn over these past three weeks. It made my already full and good life an even better place.
Thank you, all, my friends!
Note: click on a photo to see a larger slide show!
Sasha Callahan and Leo Eguchi.
Viola and wine, not too shabby!
Lovely landscape outside of the J. Christopher tasting room.
The barrel room at J. Christopher Wines.
Megumi Stohs Lewis and Sasha Callahan rehearsing Prokofiev’s Sonata for Two Violins. Photo: Stephanie Noble
Performing Kenji Bunch’s “String Circle”.
Amelia Lukas performing Joan Tower’s “White Water”.
Charles, Greg and Kenji before a concert at J. Christopher Wines.
String Circle plus Eve.
Saying farewell to J. Christopher for this year.
One of our week three venues.
Sasha and Marilyn at Sokol Blosser.
Warming up for Schubert’s great Cello Quinetet at Sokol Blosser.
Sasha and Leo playing Philip Glass at Sokol Blosser.
Wine and chamber music share center stage!
Amelia, Marilyn and Leo at the wrap party.
Meeka and Jesse at the wrap party.
Bromance is in the air! Greg, Charles, Josh, and Leo at the wrap aprty.
Susan and Amelia share a secret at the wrap party.
Toasting Susan for her awesome hosting these past three weeks!
Eve and Sasha, sisters extraordinaire!
Music and wine pairings.
It’s a family affair at this festival!
Our other fantastic week three venue, Elk Cove Vineyards.
This weekend the festival moves from the warm embrace of the J. Christopher Wines barrel room to two new locales. On Saturday, it’s Sokol Blosser, and on Sunday, Elk Cove Vineyards. The program is a nice mix – some newer music, music by a female composer, and a big, old favorite by a dead white guy.
Small-scale music by Philip Glass (who, like festival resident composer Joan Tower, is celebrating his 80th birthday year) opens the concert. His Four Duets for Violin and Cello (extracted from his Double Concerto for Violin and Cello), written in 2010, will be performed by festival co-directors Sasha Callahan and Leo Eguchi.
Poem for string quartet by the British-American composer and violist Rebecca Clarke (active in the first quarter of the 20th century) follows. Most famous for her wonderful Viola Sonata, her compositional career was limited by her gender, and she eventually stopped composition entirely after marrying. What might have been, one wonders, if she had lived in a time where being female and being a composer weren’t mutually exclusive? Callahan and Eguchi are joined by Megumi Stohs Lewis and myself.
Finally, the great String Quintet in C-major by Schubert closes the program. Oregon Symphony Assistant principal cellist (and member of the Mousai REMIX and Pyxis Quartet) Marilyn De Oliveira joins the quartet for this sublime ending to the festival’s third season. Is Schubert’s Quintet perhaps the greatest and most perfect piece ever written for chamber ensemble? Many think so. Come decide for yourself!
Week two is in the bag! Week one was tons of fun, and also tons of WORK. Two different works of Joan Tower made for some epic rehearsal schedules. This week was a bit quieter – for me – because I didn’t play every work on the program this time. Rare for a violist! It was also a bittersweet time after our final concert of the weekend, because it marked the wrap for Greg Ewer’s stint at this year’s festival, and also the end of our time at J. Christopher Wines’ wonderful barrel room. I brought five bottles of wine home over the two weeks, so at the very least I’ll have those to savor as I remember the fun times spent there.
Violinists Megumi Stohs Lewis and Sasha Callahan gave a virtuosic performance of Prokofiev’s truly epic Sonata for Two Violins. It’s one of those rare duo pieces that gives the impression of more than two instruments. It also has no ‘dead’ spots where you can sense that the composer is filling time before the next good idea. It’s first rate Prokofiev.
Sasha, Greg Ewer, myself, and Leo Eguchi were next joined by violist and composer Kenji Bunch for a rollicking performance of his string quintet String Circle. As Leo noted in his introductory remarks on the program, it’s a immensely approachable piece that also has real compositional meat and depth. The central slow movement, based upon the folk tune Wayfaring Stranger, was written partially in response to the death of Johnny Cash, whom Kenji admired as a person and as a musician. Loads of fun to play, and based upon the responses of our audiences, loads of fun to listen to as well.
The last piece on the program was the lone known string quartet by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel. It’s been played more and more in the past few years, not least because of the wonderful recording by the French quartet Quatour Ebéne. It’s a quartet that is slowly entering the repertoire – and given that Ms. Hensel wrote over 400 pieces of music – there are surely more hidden gems awaiting our discovery! In any event, it was a thrilling piece to play, with the virtuosic leadership of Greg Ewer on first violin – he has a virtual concerto to play in the finale – and as always, making music with Sasha and Leo was meaningful and a total blast!