No Wallflower - Helen Callus, UCSB’s new faculty violist, brings the viola center stage

Tom Jacobs

Santa Barbara New Press staff writer

As any classical musician can tell you, certain instruments attract specific personality types. Violinists tend to be Type-A people who love being in the spotlight. Violists, on the other hand, are often content to stay in the background.

“The viola is usually in the center of things; it’s not the prima donna voice,” noted Helen Callus. “In a quartet, the violist is always the mediator. The viola usually appeals to a shyer personality, one who can make things works out” between the more strong- willed musicians around them.

If violists tend to be wallflowers, however, Callus can usually be found in the center of the dance floor. The new viola instructor at UCSB is far too committed to her instrument, and her mission, to have any time for timidity.

“I can blend in” she said. “You have to do that in chamber music. But when you’re standing on stage by yourself, it’s not very interesting to watch or listen to somebody who is shy or introverted.”

Area audiences will get an opportunity to hear her both in both capacities at 3pm Sunday, when she makes her local debut as part of the University Artists Series concert. Callus will perform her signature piece, Rebecca Clarke’s Viola Sonata, with pianist Hee- Kyung Juhn. She will also join pianist Paul Berkowitz, violinist Yuval Yaron and cellist Geoffrey Rutkowski for a performance of Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 2.

Callus, 34, refers to herself as “a jack of all trades.” She is a recitalist, educator, chamber music player, recording artist and writer. “You want to make your life as interesting as possible, and to make as powerful a contribution as possible as a violist,” she explained in a recent interview. “That’s what I’m trying to do. I want to support this unbelievably beautiful instrument and show what great music there is for it.”

Callus was born and raised in a small city outside of London. “My father’s Greek – hot blooded and temperamental,” she reported. “My mother is an English rose, sweet and delicate and shy.”

Her musical education began at age 6, when a music teacher came to her school. “He gave the entire assembly various tests – clapping rhythms, singing in tune, things like that. The 10 people who won those little games were offered free violin lessons. I was one of those people. My mother says I ran all the way home and shouted ‘I’m going to play the violin.’ Since it was free, they said, ‘Knock yourself out.’ ”

By age 11, she was studying piano and voice, as well as violin, at a London prep school on Saturdays. It was there that her violin teacher (who was a professional violist) gave Callus her instrument and asked her to try it. “She said, ‘You have a really great sound. You should do this,” Callus recalled. “So I did.”

At 18, she enrolled at the Royal Academy of Music, still uncertain about a career but increasingly focusing her studies on the viola. The summer after her third year, she accompanied a friend on a trip to Switzerland – an experience that literally changed her life.

“My friend, a violinist, wanted me to go to keep her company,” Callus recalled. “I had to participate in the program in order to accompany her, so they put me into Paul Coletti’s master class. I showed up with basically nothing prepared. I wanted to goof around.”

“When I played for him, he said, ‘You’re pretty terrible, but you’re very talented. You should come and study with me.’”

Callus was flattered, but she told him the idea was impractical – she still had another year to go to get her undergraduate degree. Besides, he taught at the Peabody Conservatory in far-away Baltimore. Coletti was not persuaded by these facts.

“He said, ‘Come with me right now,’” she recalled. “And I did, two weeks later. He basically turned me around. Within two years, I was a much stronger player. I gave up everything else (besides the viola).”

Uninterested in the anonymity of an orchestral job, Callus decided to go the academic route, accepting a position at the University of Washington.  During her seven years in Seattle, she became a significant member of the area’s music scene, giving solo performances, performing in a chamber music ensemble, organizing conferences and participating in community outreach programs. “I very much want to do all of that here,” she said.

Callus who wasn’t actively looking for a job but was getting tired of Seattle’s constant gloom, was recruited by UCSB’s music department. She visited the campus in late spring. “I really liked the people and what they were doing,” she said. It was pretty evident pretty soon that it would be a good fit.”

She and her husband, who is also a violist, moved to the Mesa in early August. “Basically, we pinch ourselves every day,” she said. “We cant believe we’re living in such a beautiful place.”

Callus was introduced to the Rebecca Clarke sonata, which she will play Sunday afternoon, during her student days. She was so impressed by the “great, fiery piece” (which dates from 1919) that she started researching additional works by Clarke and other forgotten female composers. She eventually recorded a CD of these compositions.

She feels a special connection to Clarke, who – like herself-played the viola and emigrated from Britain to the United States.

“When I play her material, it suits my nature so perfectly,” she said. “Most of the repertoire is by male composers, and when I play those pieces I have to put myself into those shoes. When I play her material, I am in those shoes. It feels like the easiest piece in the world for me to play. “

Among her other titles, Callus is president-elect of the American Viola Society – an honor she finds somewhat amusing, considering her British ancestry. Then again, she noted, she feels much more at home in this country than in the UK.

In England, “If you play things with a lot of personality, it’s sometimes frowned upon-especially if you’re a student,” she said. “You are supposed to follow the tradition. I got so many signals to that effect.

“When I came to this country, I was told, “Stand out more. Who are you? What have you got to say? Be yourself.”

Callus says much the same thing to her own students. Her goal is to help them develop a bigger, richer sound on the instrument-and to make sure they connect with their listeners.

“I aim to be a communicative artist,” she said. “Often students don’t quite understand that. They think the goal is to be able to play proficiently and cleanly. I think the goal is to communicate-to find a common experience with the audience.”

“At the end of the day, audiences don’t go around saying, ‘That was perfect technically.’ They will say, ‘What a great piece’ or ‘What a beautiful sound’ or ‘I’ve felt that way myself.’ For me, that’s what its about.”