Sasha Callahan on Restoring Intimacy to Chamber Music

August 9, 2018

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Generally my editor likes these articles to be around a thousand words, I can usually pare down to around 1200 or so, but in talking this week to Sasha Callahan I simply couldn't cut anything. (Get ready readers, you’re in it for the long haul!) Sasha, who co-founded the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival along with her husband, cellist Leo Eguchi and her sister, has so much passion and enthusiasm and joy for chamber music that it's just infectious and well-worth reading about.

Sasha has two huge musical projects going, the Boston-based Sheffield Chamber Players and Portland-based (Portland, Oregon, mind you) Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival. Both projects seek to break down the barriers between the audience and musician by harkening back to an older, more intimate model of concerts. Composers bared their souls in writing chamber music, it was music meant to be heard in a salon setting—up-close and personal, played for an audience with an open mind and both projects embrace this idea.

Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival takes place at various wineries in Portland and, as such, is a partnership between great chamber music and delicious wine (literally a pairing of perfection) and Sheffield Chamber Players performs house concerts to small audiences that sit only feet away from the performers. Some people bring along scores, some just bring along an open mind, but they all have access to the innermost thoughts of Beethoven and Shostakovich played by incredible musicians.



I was watching your promotional video for your GoFundMe for your recording project with composer, Gabriela Lena Frank, and the idea of pairing wine and music together seems like such a perfect and enjoyable pairing for anyone.

It’s very appealing! Everyone is greeted with a glass of wine so before you hear any music you’ve already got a smile on your face because you’re in a beautiful place. Many people travel from Portland and there’s something about making that journey through these beautiful hazelnuts groves and rolling hills that’s also very magical.

That seems edenic!

It really is! As our concept took shape, we see that it really exceeded what we had hoped for in many ways. It’s been lovely and the spirit in the concerts has been really joyful and celebratory and fun. Both wine and music are areas that can feel very intimidating to people if they feel like they don’t know anything about it, they can be viewed as pretentious. I think one of the things that we do at the festival is break down those barriers and allow people to come to the experience with an open mind and that's all that's required! We talk a little bit about the wine and we talk a little bit about the music. Leo pairs the two and pulls threads from the piece and threads from the wine and compare them. People have really enjoyed that but it’s his personal take, it’s not theoretical, it’s just his experience of the two and it has been a lot of fun. We get to pay tribute to the long tradition of both of these genres, classical music and wine. Both are really handed down hand-to-hand each generation and we thought that was really a beautiful thing to celebrate. It makes sense they go together that way and it also really lent itself to our composer-in-residence program in celebrating works by living composers alongside with the works of the great masters of history. There’s something about seeing that legacy over the course of an event that we really like.

I like the idea of talking about the wine in this subjective way and how is pairs with the music because that seems so relatable and accessible. They’re both meant to be enjoyed regardless of one’s technical understanding.

IMG_7897Exactly! That’s really what we’ve been aiming to do! I think both wine and music can be appreciated on many, many levels. You can get incredibly in-depth with it, but you can also experience it in the moment and not want to think very hard about it, you can just want to let it wash over you and both are completely valid and both are wonderful experiences! So the way that Leo talks about the wine, he’ll talk about the structure of a wine, maybe being really elegant but with a hint of something dark and then he’ll talk about a pairing with the Beethoven Opus 59, No. 2 quartet that we’re going to play in a week.

They’re fun and there’s something very genuine about it, it’s not made up. Leo really thinks about it and these are really strong connections for him but they’re also ideas, things that occur to him that he’s experiencing and he’s pointing things out that people can listen for or taste for and see if they agree or not, so it’s really fun.

Is your audience made up of mostly wine enthusiasts or music enthusiasts, or do you have a healthy cross-section?

I think we get a really nice cross-section! Some of them are really hardcore into wine and part of a wine club that the winery hosts and may not know anything about chamber music, but they like the idea of spending an afternoon in the barrel room or just sign on for most of the events that that winery puts on. Then there’s other people who are really, really into chamber music and may not know anything about wine! One of the things that’s been really nice is that once people are there, it really doesn’t matter, everybody joins together and there’s just a really nice spirit of community.

Can we also talk about your collaboration with composer Gabriela Lena Frank?

Yes, I adore her! I first met Gabby at Rice University where I did my undergrad and we didn’t intersect a whole lot but then she met Leo at the University of Michigan where he was doing his undergrad, so we each crossed paths with her separately at first and then we kept kind of meeting up with her.

We did a quartet residency with her in Utah for emerging composers and string quartets and she was one of the composers-in-residence so we reconnected with her then. We asked her if we could take one of her string quartets that we actually just recorded called Leyendas and play it as a string orchestra piece. She came in for that performance and was involved with arranging the quartet for string chamber orchestra and so our lives just kept overlapping.

A couple of years ago, before Leo and my tenth anniversary, I reached out to her initially to see if we could commission a duo as an anniversary present for Leo. I still love the idea of that but it hasn’t happened yet but that’s how I got back in touch with her. I love her music and she’s very high up on my list of dream collaborators so we exchanged long emails and she’s just an incredible woman. After our first season when we had Kenji Bunch as our composer-in-residence, I reached out to Gabby to see if she would come for the 2017 season and she accepted.

When she first arrived it was a slightly nerve-wracking moment, which it always is for the performers because you want to do justice to the composer’s pieces and we were not totally thrilled with how some things were going, but she showed up and was like, “Wow, you guys have such a great sense of this music, you should record it!” We were very flattered and didn’t think much more of it but then we moved into the Barrel Room for the dress rehearsal and the Barrel Room at J. Christopher Wines has this really extraordinary acoustic. It’s this incredibly happy accident about the angles and the wood with the barrels and it has this incredible combination of warmth and ring and this incredible clarity so you can hear all of the details which is very rare. Anyways, she heard it in there and was like, “This is incredible, you should record this!” So we started to think a tiny bit more about it. We were performing two of her other string quartets, one of which had never been recorded, Milagros, and she trusted us to do the world-premiere recording of it which was a huge honor. Miraculously there was a week in March where we were all free and from there, everything seemed to align! We were like, okay we’ve got to do it, the universe is telling us that we’ve got to do this!

Once again, I just feel like there’s some magic happening with this project. Recordings can be real pressure cooker kind of projects that can feel really difficult and this one was certainly challenging. It was a very intense week but there was just an incredible spirit. There was this feeling of generosity, everybody was supportive, we were laughing like crazy. It was the Barrel Room in March so it was 55 degrees and we had these space heaters behind our chairs and we were all in down jackets and had hand warmers on, and Gabby was with us the entire time in this freezing room! It was totally crazy, but there was no complaining about it! Everybody was just making the best of everything and choosing to look at the challenges as a quirky fun part of the experience rather than a downer and I’m just so grateful for each other the people involved in this project. I just love them all and I think the world of each of them. They’re just amazing musicians and people. The pressure then became about wanting to do the best for your colleagues and for Gabby and there wasn’t so much this focus on everything having to be a perfect take so it was very liberating. It was a very beautiful experience which doesn’t always happen with recording! It felt like a really incredible thing to be part of and I’m really proud of it. I think both of these pieces are just incredible pieces of music and I’m really excited for the recording to come out.

What was collaborating with Gabby like?IMG_8306

It was a really interesting dynamic that took shape as we worked together. The recording engineer and producer, Jesse Lewis, really got in depth with the pieces. He knew the scores inside and out, so it was an interesting collaboration between him and Gabby--she actually talked about how this is the most hands off that she’s been. She was there and we asked her tons of questions but she also liked the way that things were going; she liked what was coming out of the experimentation and she liked Jesse’s comments. She was pretty relaxed with the way things were going. She was there as a resource but we also had many conversations about what kinds of sound she was after, about what her inspirations were. Her music is extremely descriptive, she’s very influenced by her Peruvian heritage and her travels to Peru with her mother. Milagros, in particular, depicts a journey through Peru and the different movements are snapshots of different scenes, different towns, and different influences from moments in Peru. Some of them are very literally about a place or she writes movements that are descriptions of little monuments that you find on the sides of the roads.

Have you noticed a difference between her earlier work and later work and how you approached her work?

Yeah, what I love about great composers, and I really put Gabby in that company, is that their voice is very much in tact from early on. Early on when she composed Leyendas, her compositional voice is really clear, so with Milagros I think you do really feel a development in her writing but they also speak to each other very naturally because her compositional voice is so clear in both of them. The same way as when you look at early-Beethoven and you look at mid-Beethoven you totally get that it’s the same mind. She’s definitely evolved and changed, and she has so many more experiences of life under her belt as a human so of course the compositions feel different that way. They both have great depth but Leyendas is one of a younger person; It’s a take of someone who is in her late 20s rather than late 30s. I really love both pieces so much.

I’d also love to talk about the Sheffield Chamber Players!

download (4)Yeah, Sheffield Chamber Plays is our other big project and it is Boston-based but it’s also a very different model for presenting music and it’s one that I’m really, really excited about also. The Sheffield Chamber Players primarily does house concerts and it’s really bringing chamber music back into the setting that it was conceived for. The bulk of our performances are in private homes and it really harkens back to the original idea of chamber music and salon concerts where so many of these great works were commissioned to be performed. This will be our fifth season and we’ve had just an incredible response, it’s been amazing. We have hosts all over the Greater Boston area, last season we did 26 performances! Similar to Willamette, Sheffield Chamber Players is based around this idea of presenting chamber music on a very human scale and in a way that people can come to it with whatever level of background they have. Again, that’s one of my very favorite things about the project-- we have people who literally come with their parts and watch for my bowings or come with a score and follow along, which is a little daunting, and then there are many, many people who come and say, “I don’t really like classical music, I’m only here because it’s my neighbor’s house.” or “My husband dragged me here but I loved the Shostakovich quartet.” We just played a Janacek quartet and that was the hit of the night which is always very interesting for us too because we never know what people are going to latch onto. It’s a really fresh way to present chamber music.

I love when musicians take a few minutes before a piece to explain the motives behind the music and why it’s important to them, I think it creates a feeling of intimacy and welcomes a better understanding of the work.

Yeah, sometimes we talk for awhile and play a lot of musical examples and sometimes it’s a bit more brief, but we try to read the audience. It makes people feel like they have something to hold onto if they don’t know about a composer or it’s their first time hearing chamber music. To be three or four seats away from a Beethoven string quartet is such a visceral experience, people are almost always struck by how physical it is to do what we have to do. They watch our communication and because they’re so close to us they can see all of that so it becomes a very different experience than going to a big concert hall and sitting in your seat. We don’t care if people clap between movements and that’s part of the fun, that’s the way it used to be, it used to be a much more raucous experience going to a concert. People really get turned off feeling like there are all of these rules and that its so stuffy!

Knowing tons of classical musicians, we as a tribe are not stuffy people! We love food and wine and we have bawdy senses of humor and are big jokesters. It’s not a stuffy group, it’s actually a very, very passionate group of people. I feel like Sheffield Chamber Players is giving people a chance to understand that and it makes this art form that we love so much human and, to me that’s the backbone of classical music. That’s the backbone of any art form-- that it communicates human emotion. That’s what has to come through in order for it to be a success in my opinion. There has to be some human component of a performance and of a work that connects people. That connection is why we do it, so if we can break down any of the barriers that prevent that connection, then that’s what I’m most passionate about as an artist and musician. That’s how I really view a future for classical music. There’s this perpetual hand-wringing about our audience aging out and people not being educated in classical music and not being interested in it anymore and I think some of that is on us, that we need to look for new ways to present it and do things differently and not just go back to the tried and true concert hall setting again and again. It’s very athletic, it’s very personal. To me, the composers really laid their souls on the line in chamber music. It’s such an intimate portrait. So often the composers’ innermost thoughts and feelings are being communicated to you and to get to play that in a setting where you feel like you too can lay yourself on the line, it feels so different as a performer. The audience is so engaged at each one of these concerts. They’re right there with us as we play no matter what pieces we’re throwing at them which has been really exciting.

Both the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival and Sheffield Chamber Players have similar ambitions of allowing people to come as they are and come with an open mind, all that we ask is that you open yourself up to these experiences. I think that the intimacy of our venues really creates this personal and intimate feeling and that’s the perfect way to experience chamber music.