On a clear day, the beautiful rows of vineyards and the view across the valley floor just west of Dundee is inspiring and refreshing. It’s a wonderful scene that can be complemented with a glass of wine and great music. I scored that sensory trifecta during the last couple of weekends when I attended two Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival concerts (August 13 and 19) at Sokol Blosser and Archery Summit wineries.
The festival, which ended Aug. 20, is celebrating its eighth season, and offers intimate chamber music concert indoors rather than outdoors. So, the performances don’t have to rely on amplification, and no one has to deal with the heat. The latter was a big factor on August 13 when the temperature hit the triple digits. Good thing the Sokol Blosser tasting room has air conditioning!
Each WVCMF concert pairs wine with music under the framework of an overarching theme. This season centered on the idea of home and belonging – expansive enough to embrace matters local, national, and international.
The Willamette Valley festival also highlights the music of a living composer each year. This year, Syrian-American composer Kareem Roustom was its composer in residence. I missed the first weekend of concerts at J. Christopher Wines/Appassionata Estate, when the world premiere of his Syrian Folk Songs was performed, but on August 13 at Sokol Blosser I heard violinist Sasha Callahan and cellist Leo Eguchi (WVCMF founders and co-artistic directors) play Roustom’s Letters Home, which Eguchi, in his prefatory remarks, noted was inspired by efforts of secret communication between people after the civil war in Syrian began in 2011.
Letters Home began in a boisterous fashion that included some lovely trills by Callahan, but then quickly sank into a lamentation with Eguchi using the upper register of the cello in a soft, sustained way while Callahan fashioned gentle phrases in the middle register. After a series of sudden plunges, they generated strident tones and gradually merged together harmonically. That was followed by a subdued segment that ended quietly, with Iguchi playing two soft notes, perhaps signaling sorrow for ongoing tragedy in Syria.
Violinist Megumi Stohs Lewis and violist Charles Noble joined Callahan and Eguchi for Caroline Shaw’s Plan and Elevation, which was inspired by the estate of Dunbarton Oaks in the Georgtown section of Washington, D.C. The title refers to terms that are used when rendering and referencing architectural drawings with a “bird’s eye” view relating to plan and the side view matching up with elevation. In five movements, Shaw gave us her personal tour of Dunbarton Oaks.
The first movement, “The Ellipse,” began with three notes that reminded me of the nursery song “Three Blind Mice.” The ensemble executed pizzicato-ing passages that fluctuated between loud and soft. The second movement, “The Cutting Garden,” erupted like a squeaky door, but perhaps the focus was actually on plants that were being clipped and arranged for exquisite bouquets. In any case, the movement ended quietly with Callahan continuously gliding over the strings of her violin. The third movement, “The Herbaceous Border,” featured Lewis delivering soaring lines above the drone of her colleagues. Passages that threaded a series of notes over top of each other dominated the fourth movement, “The Orangery,” and the piece ended with sporadic plucking and strumming on “The Beech Tree.” I enjoyed Plan and Elevation, but its music was more intellectual than emotional.
Prayer, by Ukrainian composer Vasyl Barvinsky (1888-1963), featured a strong, meditative, melodic line that was flat-out beautiful. Iguchi introduced the piece by noting that Soviet authorities destroyed Barvinsky’s works and sent him to Siberia, but that he was able to reconstruct some of his music after returning home. The quartet invested its playing of Prayer with a concentrated devotion that resonated well with the audience. It is actually the second movement of a piano quintet that Barvinsky wrote, and the quartet’s wonderful performance gives me a longing to hear the rest of the piece someday.
The second half of the concert was devoted to Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 12, which is the first of his late quartets. Considered to be at pinnacle of quartet writing, Beethoven’s late quartets were initially incomprehensible to listeners, and they still demand the utmost musicianship from ensembles.
Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival’s string quartet delivered the Quartet No. 12 with élan, issuing a bold statement in the first movement (“Maestoso – Allegro”), although at times the lower strings were a tad too loud. The ensemble instantly changed the mood with the introspective second (“Adagio”), excelling with the complex yet delightfully interwoven section. The third movement (“Scherzando vivace”) unleashed a series of outstanding dynamic shifts plus rapid lines for Callahan, whose fingers seemed to fly wildly. The fourth movement (“Finale”), with its sunny, happy-go-lucky sentiment, sent everyone home with a smile.
What a difference six days can make. When I drove to Archery Summit winery on August 19, a smoky haze covered the valley. The smoke from wildfires in neighboring counties gave the air an opaque quality that dulled the view of the valley and distant hills.
After parking, I walked to the winery’s barrel room for the WCMF concert, where a full house anticipated works by Mozart, Roustom, and Portland’s own Kenji Bunch. The lively acoustics of the space amplified and enhanced each piece without causing a reverberating echo, which was quite remarkable considering that we were basically in a cave.
The program led off with Lewis, Callahan, Noble, and Eguchi giving a marvelous performance of Mozart’s String Quartet No. 23, the last quartet for string ensemble that he wrote. The dialogue between the first violin (Lewis) and the cello (Eguchi) highlighted the lighthearted first movement. That continued with smooth exchanges of phrases from one instrument to the next in the second. The third, with its tricky, dance-like style, had an extra spring in its step, and the fourth finished things off with an uptempo flair.
The Arabic language has many words to describe the darkness that is associated with night. Think of sunset, twilight, and midnight, but add more concepts, such as “fully dark,” “the last part of the night,” and “false dawn.” Nine of those highly descriptive words were expressed in Shades of Night, which Roustom completed in 2018.
Because the piece was played without pause, the various movements blurred together like an atmospheric river. Ergo, it was impossible to figure out one description of night from another. The piece began with Callahan etching a melodic passage above a static fuzz of notes from her colleagues. That broke up into a dramatic scattershot of divergent lines for each player. Another dramatic moment came with a series of trenchant chords, followed by sporadic pizzicattos and then a slow unwinding. In one segment, Callahan soared with a lovely melodic theme – while seemingly underneath, Iguchi mined a rumbly statement on his cello.
In another segment, the ensemble delved into extended harmonics to create subtle scratchy sounds. A lovely intermingling of sounds from the violins took over briefly, but that subsided into a random-like passage of glissandos that sometimes travelled downward and sometimes upward. The final movement (“True dawn”) gave listeners the sense of daylight slowly climbing and nightfall fading away.
After intermission, the audience was treated to the West Coast premiere of Kenji Bunch’s Songs for a Shared Space. As a preface to his string quartet, Bunch explained that it was inspired by a multicultural household in which various family members learned to coexist with each other and make decisions together about common, daily things such as what to eat for dinner or what show to watch on TV.
The piece started with Eguchi sitting up front and center and with Callahan, Lewis, and violist Bunch positioned behind different sections of the audience. While Eguchi began with a mellow, gentle pattern, the other players created sounds that gnawed and were at odds. A bit of unity surfaced and Callahan walked in and took her chair. Eguchi switched to light plucking and a jazz-like theme, while Lewis and Bunch played short, choppy phrases. But Eguchi and Callahan successfully lured Lewis and Bunch to join them, and from that point on, the ensemble created a lovely cohesion with Bunch slurring notes in a loose, blue-grassy-gospelly way. Each musician had a different style, but they made a wonderful mixture that picked up speed and the finale was pure joy. The audience erupted with a standing ovation, and that made Songs for a Shared Space a memorable experience – one that should be recorded.