Chamber music and a virtual toast

Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival, known for blending sounds and wine, pops the cork on its fifth vintage – this time, via streaming

Minus the barrel room and live applause, members of Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival will play music for three August weekends at three stellar wineries (J. Christopher Wines, Archery Summit Winery and Sokol Blosser Winery) beginning Saturday, Aug. 8. Though you’ll have to savor the vintages at home in front of your computer, it’s a small sacrifice for these dedicated musicians’ performances. Longtime friends, the WVCMF string players have quarantined, masked up, and practiced outdoors before the festival begins.

In its fifth year—this is the first virtual one—the festival will showcase the music of Ludwig van Beethoven (this year marks his 250th anniversary) and the work of living American composers. Five contemporary composers’ works will be performed, including Portland composer/violist/Fear No Music artistic director Kenji Bunch’s “Four Flashbacks” for violin and cello. Several composers will appear virtually for question-and-answer periods after the concerts.

Music amid the (virtual) vineyards: Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival founders and directors Leo Eguchi and Sasha Callahan. Photo: Rachel Hadiashar

In the past, the festival has collaborated with one composer a year. Joan Tower, Jessie Montgomery and Gabriela Lena Frank have been in residence. This season, Montgomery and Frank will show up again, along with Daniel Roumain (DBR), all of whom will be communicating virtually from their homes (Montgomery from New York City, Frank from northern California, DBR from Massachusetts). Festival directors Sasha Callahan and Leo Eguchi make it their mission to collaborate with BIPOC, women, unsung, and minority composers. “We deeply believe that the life and vibrancy of this art form hinges on reflecting the world we live in, with all its diverse voices and experiences,” artistic co-director Callahan says.

The creation of one-time Oregon resident/violinist Callahan and cellist/wine collector Eguchi—a musical married couple based in Boston—along with Callahan’s sister, Eve Callahan, who is among Portland’s marketing elite, the festival has always paired hosting wineries’ vintages with music for the intimate concerts staged in barrel or tasting rooms. It will continue to do that by sending along via email wine-pairing suggestions from each of the host wineries after you buy a ticket. All concerts begin at 5:30 p.m. Tickets, ranging from $30 for single concerts to $120 for the entire season, are available on the web site.

The music and the night on fire: Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival in performance in 2018.

Program Notes

The first weekend, Aug. 8, focuses on sunshine and light with Beethoven’s Haydn-influenced early-period “Two Bagatelles,” arranged for two violins by Osvaldo Golijov, and Beethoven’s  “String Quartet Op.18 #3.” Emerging composer Akshaya Tucker’s “Breathing Sunlight” follows, and the concert ends with Gabriela Lena Frank’s much lauded 2001 “Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout” inspired by her mother’s native Peru. You may hear some strains of Hungarian Bela Bartok, American William Bolcom, Russian Sofia Gubaidulina and Peruvian Susana Baca —Frank’s favorite composers.

Composer Gabriela Lena Frank, featured at the festival for a second year. Photo: Mariah Tauger

Tucker’s “Breathing Sunlight” came to life at the three-year old Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music in Booneville, Calif, with Frank’s mentoring. Callahan describes Tucker’s work as “a beautiful, ruminative piece, inspired in part by Indian classical music, specifically a Hindustani raga. She has studied Indian classical dance and music for many years.” 

Tucker describes her piece as “moments spent with those who will leave us soon. Simple things, like lying on the grass, in the sun, breathing — these moments of conscious stillness …”

Eguchi, who arranges the wine pairings, proposes this alchemy with the first concert, at J. Christopher Wines:

 “The generous texture, yet delicate fruit and herbal flavors of the J. Christopher 2019 Estate Rose are a great match for the peaceful beauty of the Tucker. Then, the winery’s  2017 sauvignon blanc’s exuberant grapefruit and stone fruits pair perfectly with the sunny smile of the Beethoven string quartet, while maintaining an acidity and minerality that fit neatly with the work’s very classical structure. Gabriela Lena Frank’s `Leyendas’ is so full of color and Andean flair that it needed a match that had some spice and body to hold up to it. J. Christopher’s library release, 2014 Nuages Pinot Noir, does that deliciously!”

Frank’s works, including the premiere of “Milagros” and the well-established “Leyendas” are featured on the yet-to-be released album, Her Own Wings, on the Bright Shiny Things record label. It’s a first: a 2017 WVCMF concert recorded in J. Christopher’s barrel room. It’s available for presale on the label’s website.

Composer and violinst Jessie Montgomery, back with the festival for a second straight year. Photo: Jiyang Chen

The concert Aug. 15 at Archery Summit Winery, Eguchi says, is “all about motion and color.” It   features composer Jessie Montgomery’s “Duo for Violin and Cello,” with “constantly evolving layers of light and and dark,” much like Beethoven’s “String Quartet, Op. 74, `The Harp’” from his “heroic” middle period of risk-taking, mostly joyful music. Kenji Bunch’s “Four Flashbacks” for violin and cello (to be performed by Callahan and Eguchi) and Montgomery’s playful and obstreperous “Break Away” are tart and sparkly, Eguchi says, and blend well with Archery Summit’s 2017 Vireton Pinot Gris.

Montgomery has known Eguchi since high school years, when they attended Meadow Mount Summer String Camp in Upstate New York. As one of the festival’s composers-in-residence and an accomplished violinist, she has received praise for her ability to infuse her music with various genres including jazz, rock, classical and her own innovative voice. She is a member of the Catalyst Quartet, a collaborator with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble, and a recipient of numerous commissions from chamber groups, dance companies and orchestras. See my 2019 ArtsWatch interview with her.  

Sokol Blosser hosts the final concert on Aug. 22 with some fiery music. Little-known Baroque composer and nun Isabella Leonarda’s “Sonata #12” for violin and cello will be followed by Daniel Roumain’s “String Quartet No. 5 (Parks)” that speaks to Rosa Parks’ not giving up her bus seat in 1955  Montgomery, Ala. Roumain’s high-spirited “Hip Hop Etudes and Studies” follow, and the concert ends with Beethoven’s last string quartet, Opus 135, that captures his dark despair, soul-searching and hope, or hopelessness, during his final period, when he was deaf.

Roumain is an indefatigable collaborator, virtuoso violinist and teacher, and social activist. He has been joining forces for 20 years with such luminaries as Philip Glass, dance choreographer Bill T. Jones, Lady Gaga and many others. “All of my string quartets are musical portraits of iconic figures from the Civil Rights era,” he says. “Rosa Parks refused to move from her bus seat and was an integral part of a movement of disobedience towards a common goal of equity and dignity and pride and purpose. My HIP-HOP STUDIES & ETUDES are 24 works (one in each musical key) that explores and examines aspects of hip-hop music that I find most interesting and attractive.”

Composer and performer Daniel Roumain, or DBR: “an indefatigable collaborator, virtuoso violinist and teacher, and social activist.”

Wine matches include Sokol Blosser’s 2017 Bluebird Sparkling wine, which pairs up with DBR’s energetic ‘Etudes’’  and Leonarda’s exotically fresh sonata. Beethoven’s final quartet works with the 2018 Hyland VIneyard  layered pinot.  DBR’s “Parks” – “an expression of courage and humanity,” Eguchi says – matches up with the 2018 Pinot  Blanc/Pinot Gris blend that is “assertive and multi-layered.”

A schedule and musicians’ biographies are on the festival web site. In addition to Callahan and Eguchi, string players include Charles Noble, Greg Ewer and Megumi Stohs Lewis. 

What would Beethoven say about these vibrant multicultural American composers who are sharing the spotlight with him? Callahan gives the question a shot: “I do think that Beethoven would respect these three and find their work interesting. Gabriela, Jessie and Daniel are each powerfully and unapologetically who they are. None of them plays it safe or follows fads or is interested in making the listener comfortable. Like Beethoven, I think each of them as individuals has a deep sense of humanity, and that is what comes through in their music more than anything else, the ability to communicate something about the human experience that transcends some of the lines that sometimes separate us.”

 Frank adds, “My hope is that Beethoven would say,`Wow!’ and then, `But why?’ so that we could have a great conversation.”

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