Recital puts the spotlight on viola with rich rewards

By Philippa Kiraly
Special to the Seattle Post Intelligencer

Violist Helen Callus.
Meany Hall, Seattle

The viola, like the bassoon, the tuba and a few other instruments of the orchestra, is apt to be listened to as background - at least when the violin, cello or oboe are around.

So to hear a recital where the viola is the reason for the performance,and the program is planned to show off its beauties, is refreshing.

Young English violist Helen Callus (who joined the University of Washington faculty in 1996) gave such a chamber music recital Tuesday night at Meany Hall, assisted by colleagues and by cellist Lee Duckles of the Vancouver (B.C.) Symphony.

The concert showed how difficult it is to make the viola a star: not because there is anything less expressive or less beautiful about its innate properties than, say, the violin, but because, with its middle register and generally gentler timbre, it tends to land in a background position to brighter or higher instruments.

Callus began with a Bach Viola da Gamba Sonata, No. 2 in D Major (played an octave higher on the viola), which showed off her instrument and playing to perfection. She played with impeccable baroque sensibilities, using appropriate articulation and very little vibrato. Nor did she dig into her instrument. The resulting sound floated
out, soft-edged, rich, gorgeous and relaxed, over Carole Terry's light harpsichord accompaniment.

As she demonstrated throughout the program, Callus is a consummate chamber player. Her tone is easy and mellow, with depth, and her technique is unobtrusively excellent.

Why we don't hear more of the clarinet/viola, or viola/voice literature is a puzzle, because the instrument's timbres enhance each other. That was true in Schumann.s .Marchen-erzahlungan (Fairy Tales), which Callus played with clarinetist William McColl and pianist Craig Sheppard. Dramatic one moment, dreamy the next,these four pieces are an exquisite work.

Equally worth hearing are Charles Martin Loeffler's Four Poems for mezzo soprano, viola and piano, and Hindemith's "Die Serenaden" for oboe, soprano, viola and cello. Carmen Pelton, who can tell and artsong story with the twitch of an eyebrow, caught the romantic ambience of the former, and plucked pitches out of thin air for the Hindemith's more contemporary tonality.

Hindemith mixes and matches the instruments, only rarely using all of them. The fourth of the eight pieces, a duet for muted viola and cello in which the style is baroque but tonal coloration anything but that, provided another chance for Callus to shine. Playing fast, crisply and quietly, she and Duckles seemed to think as one, and their moments of unison created intense pleasure.

They had more of these in Betthoven's charming Duet "mit zwei obligaten Augeneglasern"(with two obbligato eyeglasses", which the composer wrote for a friend with poor eyesight). Unfortunately, an otherwise excellent
performance was marred by too great a difference in the player's timbral qualities and vibrato styles.