White Bird Dance Paul Taylor Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

Long lingering finishes: Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival returns

Wine valley festival pairs old world and contemporary music.


Sasha Callahan and Leo Eguchi in 2018.

Going on its seventh season, Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival has consistently shown itself to be a forward-looking mid-summer event. This year it will run during August’s first three weekends: Aug 6-7, 13-14 and 20-21. Offering ample tastes of pinots with exquisite pieces performed by world-class chamber musicians in Oregon cellars and tasting rooms creates a harmonious way to slip classical string music into the ears of the most reluctant summer concertgoers. 

Aside from that brilliant concept, Oregon-born violinist Sasha Callahan and cellist Leo Eguchi, WVCMF’s artistic directors, have stuck to their mission of bringing BIPOC composers and music into the standard masterpiece chamber repertoire of Beethoven, Bach and Mozart. They program less well known music from unfamiliar composers, making each concert a mix of Old World and contemporary music, familiar and new. This year they’ve added a “music book club” called “Scorekeeping,” where you can Zoom in with them and discover more about specific musical pieces. 

This year, as in former years, Sokol Blosser, J. Christopher Wines and Archery Summit–each about an hour’s drive from Portland–will host two concerts each weekend. The performances will be live, not streamed. Covid precautions, including masking and mandatory vaccinations, are required. Check out the WVCMF website to see exact concert times, ticket prices and Covid regulations.

This season’s festival theme is “common ground” (coincidentally the title of composer-in-residence Indian-American Reena Esmail’s Yale doctoral thesis)–“with explorations of universal human emotions through very different lenses,” as Callahan describes it. “The pieces we’ve selected showcase the breadth of the human experience, and reveal the common ground we share, even across oceans and centuries.”

Each weekend has a sub-theme for its music: introspection, love and celebration come into focus on different weekends. Esmail, who describes her music as ”halfway between Hindustani and Western Classical,” will be on hand for the second weekend at J. Christopher Wines for after-concert events, including a terrace dinner on Aug. 13 and a less elaborate reception Aug. 14 (both are add-ons to regular tickets). See my story about Esmail published July 28 in Oregon Arts Watch, and look at the WVCMF website for further information about the after-concert events.

The August 6 and 7 concerts (the same program each day) at Sokol Blosser Winery emphasize “introspection.” The concert begins with Black contemporary composer Kevin Day‘s contemplative String Quartet No. 5, written in early 2022, and is followed by Esmail’s Zeher, which translates as “poison,” and inspired by a horrible strep throat she suffered during Covid. Little-known 17th-century Flemish composer Leonora Duarte’s mystical Sinfonias precedes W. A. Mozart’s final chamber music piece, E-flat Major String Quintet, which music experts say honors his friend and chamber music partner, Joseph Haydn.

As usual, cellist and co-artistic director Eguchi, an enthusiastic oenophile, matched the wineries’ vintages with the music. For Sokol Blosser’s program he says, “The second half offers two different views of graceful beauty, with Leonora Duarte’s Sinfonias creating a warmer, almost mystical space, and Mozart’s string quintet delivering bright exuberance and good cheer.”

His choice: 2019 Hyland Vineyard Pinot Noir, “with its cool tart cherry and delicate warming spices was a perfect match for both! It dances across your palate with an elegant lightness that belies its earthy and herbal complexities.”

The program Aug. 13 and 14 at J. Christopher Wines is designed around the many aspects of love, beginning with two works for soprano and strings: Esmail’s temporarily titled “New Work for Soprano, Violin, and Cello” (based on love of art, and a West Coast premiere) is followed by Osvaldo Golijov’s How Slow the Wind, an emotional investigation of love and loss. The Argentine-born Golijov was the 2021 WVCMF composer-in-residence. The second half of the program features Esmail’s String Quartet “Ragamala,” often called her signature piece. “The unifying subject of a Ragamala is love, evoked as a range of specific emotions (rasa) that have a corresponding musical form,” Callahan explains. Robert Schumann’s String Quartet No. 2, a birthday gift to his adored wife, Clara, is the final piece.

Naturally, Eguchi chose the special bottling of J. Christopher Wines’ 2019 Ragamala Apassionata (Estate) Vineyard, Special Selection Pinot Noir for Esmail’s string quartet, “Ragamala,” which as he says, “takes its name from a classical Indian painting style and means something along the lines of ‘color,’ ‘mood,’ or ‘delight.’”

We chose a Pinot Noir from a unique block of vines in a very special vineyard. J. Christopher’s limited bottling 2019 Ragamala Pinot Noir hails from the rockiest part of their Apassionata estate vineyard and presents a perfect match. Just as Esmail’s music opens in ever-unfolding lyrical layers, so will the taster be invited in with brushstrokes of complex red fruits and colorful herbal aromatics. Esmail’s masterful sense of storytelling turns to the dramatic, so does our Ragamala pinot show its stony upbringing, with a firm texture and powerful structure to hold up to the most energetic moments. Lastly, both the music and the wine close with long lingering finishes that will remain in the audience’s mind for days to come.

The small-lot selection wine was created for Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival events.

The festival’s last weekend, Aug. 20 and 21, at Archery Summit Winery outside of Dundee, zones in on celebratory pieces. Joseph Bologne’s exuberant Sonata for Two Violins in A Major will open the program. Bologne was an 18th-century violinist and Parisian orchestra conductor, educated in Paris and the son of wealthy Guadeloupeian landowner and a slave. Following Bologne’s piece are Esmail’s energetic Teen Murti, Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 59 No. 3 (the third of the “Rasumovsky” quartets), and finally Kareem Roustom’s wrenching Letters Home–“a yearning celebration of his native war-torn homeland, Syria,” Callahan says.

Musicians include violinist Callahan and cellist Eguchi, violinists Emily Cole and Megumi Stohs Lewis, cellist David Goldblatt, violist Charles Noble and soprano Catherine van der Salm. You can see their bios on the WVCMF website

During her wine-country stay, Esmail will be joining festival musicians to work with the Junior Orchestra of Yamhill (JOY), an El Sistema youth orchestra program based in Newberg, Ore. The festival began working with JOY last summer, and did a weeklong residency with them in April.


Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she’s a member of the Music Critics Association of North America and a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.

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