Sunday, August 26, 2018

Vineyard’s cellar resonates with chamber music

Ensemble getting ready to play "String Cycle"
 Surrounded by oak vats and wafted with the smell of wine, the audience at the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival was in a good mood for a concert last Saturday (August 18th). They had tasted one of the exceptional vintages at J. Christopher Wines, located in the hillside just north of Newberg, and were ready for an afternoon of music by Sergei Prokofiev, Kenji Bunch, and Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel. Based on what I heard, the barrel room, which seats at least 50, has an excellent, lively acoustic and is a wonderful venue for chamber music. The acoustic also means that you can hear when someone places a wineglass on the concrete floor and other similar disturbances.

The concert began with Prokofiev’s “Sonata for Two Violins,” which received incisive playing by Megumi Stohs Lewis and Sasha Callahan. They deftly kept a tonal balance while exchanging the leading melodic line between each other. The music seemed more intellectual than emotional at times, because of the crisscrossing lines, but sweet third movement (“Commodo”) and the fourth (“Allegro con brio”) really sang.

As an introduction to Kenji Bunch’s “String Circle,” Sasha Callahan interviewed Bunch before the playing commenced. With an unassuming air, he described how his piece is sort of a fiddlers’ jam that taps into Appalachian folk, Texas Swing, a setting of A Wayfaring Stranger, and the sound of a fax machine. The ensemble (violinists Greg Ewer and Callahan, violists Charles Noble and Bunch, and cellist Leo Eguchi) set it all into motion, starting with the slip-slidy “Lowdown.” A lighthearted “Shuffle Step” offered brief solos for the violas and the cello. “Ballad” was poignant tribute to a song made famous by Johnny Cash. The pizzicati-ensemble playing in “Porch Picking” lifted the mood and set the table for the motoric “Overdrive,” which featured a rhythmically gnawing sound.

Quartet receiving applause after the Quartet in E Flat
As first violinist for Mendelssohn-Hensel’s Quartet in E Flat, Ewer served up a mesmerizing performance, expressing the slow sections soulfully and nimbly conquering the fast passages with élan, and putting an artistic statement on top of it. His expert playing was matched by violinist Callahan, violist Noble, and cellist Eguchi, who wonderfully whipped his way through some wickedly treacherous sections. The ensemble dug into the depths of the music from somber beginning, then took the listeners on a fantastic journey that ended with a breathtaking, racing finale to the mountaintop.

By pairing wine and chamber music at local wineries, the WVCMF has found a winning combination for its concert series. The festival, which is now in its third year, featured Joan Tower as composer-in-residence for the first week of concerts. It provides a great way to get out of town and enjoy the wine country with high-caliber performances. Prosit!

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