To many ears, no phrase screams “elitism” like “wine appreciation.” Unless it’s “classical music”.
Violinist Sasha Callahan understands these stereotypes. The Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival which she co-directs is dedicated to pairing vintage Oregon wines with classical music.
This year’s festival, which takes place August 6-21 at three vineyards in Oregon’s wine country, features new and recent music by contemporary composers as well as classical compositions and appropriate wines, all presented in a relaxed setting that emphasizes intimacy and informality.
Callahan and partner cellist Leo Eguchi’s desire to counter stereotypes led them to this year’s Composer-in-Residence, Reena Esmailwho shares their inclination to break down the barriers that have kept wine and classical music away from too many people who might appreciate them.
“We loved her music, but also the work she’s done to make music inclusive and available so you can come into it as you are,” Callahan said. They chose the theme for this year’s festival, Common Ground, based on Esmail’s research into how composers and musicians can collaborate across cultural boundaries.
“At a time when so many forces are trying to divide people, we loved the idea of finding common ground between cultural and musical interests, even in the relationship between wine country and land.”
With wine and classical music, “the protocols and traditions turned a lot of people off, intimidated them, like they didn’t know enough to just enjoy it,” Callahan said. “The (concert) format we cling to is so different from what musicians really are, why we got into music in the first place. We did ourselves a disservice with all the formalities.
While barriers remain, from the cost of tickets to shows that include servings of fine wine to the cost of driving in rural areas to shows, the festival is working to reduce other barriers to the enjoyment of its two passions. The musicians explain to the audience why they love the music they are about to play and perform at audience level, without a stage, just a few feet away.
“We want people to experience the concerts on a visceral, human level,” Callahan explained. “We want them to see us communicate, see us sweat, engage with us in a way that’s different from the usual concert setting.”
The festival got even more intimate last year with reduced attendance caused by the pandemic.
“People loved the small-scale vibe last year when we tentatively got together,” Callahan said. “This kind of personal performance creates an experience that connects with the history of most chamber music, how it was meant to be heard in a room very close to the performers with just a small group of people.”
The three wineries were chosen for their superior acoustics and intimate atmospheres.
“Associating wine with music makes gigs fun and social,” Callahan said. “People are so open and engaged because they’re so relaxed. Even the process of going out into wine country, with hazelnut orchards and vineyards, opens people’ to relax and enjoy music and wine.
To further combat the elitist image of classical music, the festival is sponsoring a series of free Friday morning concerts at the Tualatin Public Library, and its musicians will teach with the Yamhill Junior Orchestrawho works with students from various socio-economic backgrounds who often do not have access to private musical training.
Best known for creatively combining elements of Western and Indian classical music, Esmail did not grow up with Indian music in 1980s Los Angeles. But when a research fellowship took her to her parents’ native India, she found the same emphasis on intimacy and informality that Callahan and Eguchi cherish, and that led her to participate in the festival. of this year.
Esmail has worked with homeless musicians through the Street Symphony of Los Angeles and regularly conducts workshops with amateur choirs. Although her music has been performed by major orchestras, such as Eguchi and Callahan, she enjoys smaller scale performances.
“What I love about chamber music is that it allows you to be intimate with people,” Esmail said. “In a big concert hall, you can’t engage with people on a human level when the numbers get too big. I like the idea of presenting good music and good wine in spaces where you can have a real dialogue, where I can see the musicians and interact with the public. This is how we will move classical music forward.
Esmail’s compositions at this year’s festival use Western classical instruments to “show that there are so many colors in Indian music, not just major and minor (modes) (of Western classical music),” he said. she declared.
Composing her first string quartet, ‘Ragamala’, inspired by ancient Indian paintings, she asked herself, ‘How can I combine the world of these ragas that I love with (Western) classical music and make it a way where I’m honoring what these classical musicians are doing? This August 13 concert also includes Esmail’s brand new composition for soprano, violin and cello on a poem by Wendell Berry.
His second string quartet, “Zeher”, (August 6), was released in March 2020 – a fitting date for a work whose title means “poison”, and was even inspired by Esmail’s difficulty in breathing and speaking, due to a severe infection of strep throat. Esmail’s groundbreaking composition, “Teen Murti” (August 20), uses musical patterns that anyone familiar with Hindustani classics will recognize, as well as references to Western classical musicians like Vivaldi and Stravinsky, to portray classic Indian ragas. “seen through a western lens”. ,” she explained.
Working with musicians who play his music, “all I want is for someone to be really open-minded and flexible,” Esmail said. “Once someone feels that their tradition isn’t the only possible solution, that they don’t have the only right answer, anything is possible.” It’s a cherished feeling for everyone in our multicultural world, not just musicians.
Other contemporary works include a string quartet by rising young composer Kevin Day that “explores two sides of itself”, Callahan said, with a lyrical meditative opening followed by a second movement embracing both hip hop influences. and gospel of his childhood. “Letters Home”, a cello and violin duet by contemporary composer Kareem Roustom, evokes the pain of the war that still tears his Syrian homeland apart. ‘How Slow the Wind’ by one of today’s greatest composers, Argentinian-American Osvaldo Golijov, is a delightful song for soprano and strings.
Older music ranges from rarely heard string quintets by Spanish Baroque composer Leonora Duarte, to violin duets by brilliant 18th-century Afro-French composer/violinist Joseph of Bologna, to Mozart’s magnificent final string quintet and classical quartets. by Beethoven and Schumann.
Eguchi associates each composition with a wine chosen to balance or complement the music. Schumann’s lush Romantic Quartet, for example, comes with a vintage with invigorating tannins whose acidity keeps the experience from getting too “sticky,” Callahan said. They even made a special bottle just for Esmail’s music: Ragamala Pinot Noir.
“At the heart of wine and classical music is the expression of personal and heartfelt creators designed to bring people together in a moment,” Callahan said. “Especially with the distractions of modern life, they encourage you to be present and fully engaged in the experience.”
The Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival runs August 6-21; general admission tickets for individual concerts are $85, available at www.wvchambermusic.org. Season tickets are $225. Tickets include a special tasting of three wines. Due to Covid security measures, seating is still limited.
Program 1: 5:00 p.m. August 6-7, Sokol Blosser Wine Estate5000 Sokol Blosser Lane, Dayton.
Program 2: 6 p.m. August 13, 4:30 p.m. August 14 J. Christopher Wines17150 NE Hillside Dr., Newberg.
Program 3: 5:20 p.m.-August 21, Archery Summit18599 NE Archery Summit Road, Dayton.
— Brett Campbell is a freelance writer from Portland.