Summertime in Oregon – the air is warm, the skies are blue, and grapes are ripening in vineyards throughout the state. The Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival knows how to take advantage of the situation. Founded by violinist and Oregonian native Sasha Callahan and her husband, cellist Leo Eguchi, the WVCMF offers concerts at three wineries over three weekends with top-level musicians.
Now in its seventh season, the WVCMF presents music from the Baroque to brand new works. The wide range is due, in part, because every year the festival hosts a composer-in-residence. The roster has included Gabriela Lena Frank, Joan Tower, Jessie Montgomery, Daniel Bernard Roumain, and Osvaldo Golijov. This year, Indian-American composer Reena Esmail was tapped, and selections from her oeuvre were played in each program (read Angela Allen’s profile here).
Kick off concert at Sokol Blosser Winery
The first WVCMF program I attended was at Sokol Blosser Winery on a toasty (100° F) Sunday afternoon (August 7). Fortunately, concertgoers could relax in the winery’s beautiful air-conditioned tasting room and enjoy Sokol Blosser’s 2020 Bluebird Cuvée Sparkling Brut and a refreshing 2021 Sauvignon Blanc during the first half of the program.
The wines matched well with the String Quartet No. 5 by Kevin Day, a 26-year-old African-American composer from Charleston, West Virginia. Violinists Callahan and Megumi Stohs Lewis, violist Charles Noble, and cellist Eguchi established a solemn opening statement that was layered with melodic material. The pace gradually slowed down to reveal a highly etched line by Callahan before coming to restive ending. The second part featured pizzicatos against light, playful, almost fiddle-like phrases. Phrases skipped blithely and the music gradually became more propulsive, driving to the finale.
The ensemble also played Esmail’s Zeher (Poison), a quartet that imaginatively blends Hindustani and Western traditions. The title referred to Esmail’s struggle to overcome a severe bout of strep throat a couple of years ago. The music conveyed the feeling of coughing – with clusters of notes that were agitated, so to speak, by the cellist. An infiltration of glissandos and other sliding tones by the entire ensemble suggested a seesaw battle from congestion (held down at times by the droning viola). Lovely harmonic lines from the violins evoked a soothing sense of someone who finally recovered from a severe illness.
For the second half of the concert, Sokol Blosser offered a robust 2019 Pino Noir that went down easily with the Sinfonias Nos. 3 – 6 of Leonora Duarte, a Portuguese-Flemish Jewish composer who lived in Antwerp from 1610 to 1678. Written originally for five violas, the Sinfonias were gracefully played by violinists Lewis and Callahan, violists Brad Ottesen and Noble, and cellist Eguchi. While each Sinfonia was brief (usually two to three minutes), the festival’s viola quintet expressed the character of each, which ranged from serious (No. 3) to playful (No. 6).
The viola quintet also performed Mozart’s String Quintet No 6 in E flat major, which he completed in 1791. The ensemble brought out its sunny disposition, with Lewis executing elegant bird-like trills and the violas creating rustic, hunting calls in the first movement. The lyrical melodies of the second movement painted a cantabile soundscape with delightful exchanges between all players. The third offered a courtly minuet and skipped blithely along without a care in the world. The final movement picked up the pace delightfully, with sudden pauses, and Lewis deftly leading the way to a cheerful finale.
Barrel room concert at J. Christopher Winery
The temperature was down to the mid-80s when I arrived at J. Christopher Winery, located in the hills a few miles west of Newberg. The concert (August 13) took place in the barrel room, where the temperature was cool enough to cause audience members to add extra layers of clothing. Acoustically, it was a warm, resonant space with just a touch of reverb.
The winery welcomed patrons with a refreshing Riesling Sekt – Extra Brut, an excellent choice with which to celebrate the world premiere of Esmail’s Who makes a clearing, which had been delayed for the past two years because of the pandemic. Based on a poem of the same name by Wendell Berry, the text of Who makes a clearing thoughtfully expressed the artistic sense of preparing a field.
Soprano Catherine van der Salm, violinist Callahan, and cellist Eguchi conveyed Who makes a clearing with an elegant simplicity. Tones from the violin and cello slid upwards in layered phrases that were capped at times with tremolos. Salm’s warm voice glided between them, sometimes with a straight tone and at others with minimum vibrato. It created a fine balance between East and West that felt comforting and unique at the same time.
The trio of performers were joined by violinist Megumi Stohs Lewis and violist Charles Noble for Golijov’s How slow the wind, which was adapted text from the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Golijov wrote the piece in 2001 shortly after hearing of the sudden death of a friend. After establishing a pensive opening, the piece settled briefly settled into a calm before gushing forward. Later, the music seemed to vanish with the feeling of someone’s spirit flying away.
Esmail’s Ragamala was paired with a 2019 Pinot Noir that was honored with the same name for the occasion. The four-movement piece for string quartet connected strongly with the Indian raag (or raga) style – melodic motifs that are interwoven in an improvised way. To my novice ears, it seemed that Eguchi’s cello would lay down a foundational drone and his colleagues would riff harmonically and sometimes toss in a dollop of dissonance. There were sequences that reminded me of fireflies dancing about. The third movement, “Basant,” was soulfully meditative but with unusual sonic juxtapositions. The fourth, “Jog,” erupted into an ecstatic exchange that seesawed back and forth until it reached a point where all of the players synced up and slowed down to a restful ending.
I tried to figure out what the beat was for the final movement but gave up. In an email exchange with Callahan, she explained it:
In the last movement, Reena writes mixed meters that are constantly changing (alternating between 5/16, 10/16, 7/16, 3/16, 13/16, 9/16, 4/16, etc.). In the whole last movement, there are only a couple of spots where we have consecutive measures in the same meter.
The very last notes you hear are unmetered — she clearly indicates who plays what, and in what order (and whether or not we should overlap), but there she leaves the exact timing/pacing to the discretion of the players. She does this in many spots throughout the piece.
I can only respond, “Wow!”
An intermission followed Ragamala along with a glass of 2018 Pinot Noir – Kolb Vineyard. That helped to reorient me to the final piece on the program, Schumann’s String Quartet No. 2 in F Major. Schumann wrote his three quartets during the summer of 1842 – with the Second written for the 23rd birthday of his wife Clara.
The ensemble (violinists Lewis and Calahan, violist Noble, and cellist Eguchi) expertly captured the unencumbered conversational nature of much of the piece. Although the lively acoustic of the barrel room made the pianissimos a challenge, and the third movement, Scherzo (Presto) had a couple of fuzzy moments, the spirited fourth movement closed the piece with exuberance that reverberated into the audience. The resulting standing ovation was well deserved.
For an encore, the ensemble uncorked a Bollywood-style piece that Esmail penned. With expressive glissandos from Callahan and a driving rhythm, it was a real toe-tapper that had people swaying in their chairs.
Barrel room concert finale Archery Summit Winery
The weather was sunny and again in the 80s when I arrived at Archery Summit Winery on Saturday, August 20–a picture-perfect day to enjoy a 2021 Vieton Pinot Gris and the beautiful scenery in the valley stretching to the south. Before walking down a long corridor lined with barrels of vino, patrons were treated to a glass of 2018 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir.
The concert began with a piece for two violins by Joseph Bologne, who was born in Guadeloupe of French and African heritage and raised in France where he was known as the Black Mozart because of talent as a composer, violinist, and conductor. Violinists Emily Cole and Sasha Callahan delivered his Sonata No. 3 in A Major with an elegant and refined sound that was amplified by the vibrant acoustics of the barrel room. Consisting of two movements, the sonata had a Mozartian style that showed off some fleet fingerwork by Cole.
Reena Esmail’s Teen Murti (Three Statues) reminded me of her Ragamala in that there was a layering of melodic lines on top of a low drone. This time, the ensemble consisted of violinists Callahan and Cole, violist Noble, and cellists Eguchi and David Goldblatt. The first section was soft with a lot of sliding and wiggling tones. The second section was highlighted by crying or weeping sounds. The third continued the layering until the musicians coalesced into vigorous, rhythmic melodic lines that went up and down like a rollercoaster before slowing and coasting to a restful ending.
After intermission, Callahan and Eguchi performed Letters Home by Syrian-American composer Kareem Roustom. They duo expertly evoked a sense of longing for home with exposed trills, glissandos, and a slow pace. The contrast of high notes with low notes created a series of sighs, and the piece concluded with much sorrow for the composer’s homeland, which has been torn apart by violence.
To counter that lament, the concert ended on an upbeat note with Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 9 in C major, Op. 59, No. 3, helped along by a 2019 Archer’s Crest Vineyard Pinot Noir. The quartet–last of the three Beethoven wrote for Count Andreas Razumovsky–received an incisive and emotional performance from Callahan, Cole, Noble, and Eguchi that elicited enthusiastic applause between movements and a standing ovation at the end. Of special note were the excellent dynamics that the ensemble expressed, the lively interplay between each musician, Eguchi’s very resonant pizzicatos, and the speedy fingers of each player in the final movement.
Her Own Wings: music of Gabriela Lena Frank
During the beginning of the pandemic, the WVCMF released Her Own Wings, a recording of music by Gabriela Lena Frank that is lightly flavored with some South American spice. The first piece, Milagros, is played by Callahan and Greg Ewer (violins), Bradley Ottesen (viola) and Eguchi (cello). The second, Leyendas, features the playing of Lewis and Callahan (violins), Ottesen (viola), and Eguchi (cello).
Her Own Wings is available on Bandcamp.