UW violist Callus isn't just fiddling around

Melinda Bargreen
Seattle Times music critic

Q: Why is a viola like a lawsuit?

A: Everyone is happy when the case is closed.

Q: What's the difference between a viola and a lawnmower?

A: You can tune the lawnmower.

By now, you're getting the picture: Violists are the Rodney Dangerfields of the symphony orchestra. Sandwiched between the second fiddles and the deeper strings of the cello and bass, the viola gets the monotonous harmony parts instead of the virtuoso melodies - and the instrument sometimes has been a magnet for less able players.

Say all this to Helen Callus and she'll just laugh.

The British-born violist, who joined the University of Washington music faculty three seasons ago at a mere 26, has heard all the viola jokes, but she just tosses them aside.

"Violists may not have the diva personality of the violinists," the glamorous blonde observes in her Emma Thompson accent, "but we're the mediators and the organizers of the music world. Remember, Mozart, Beethoven, Dvorak, Hindemith and many other great composers played - and preferred - the viola. We're the cornerstone of any musical group."

Callus herself is certainly a cornerstone of plenty.

In Seattle, she seems to be everywhere at once: teaching her 20 viola students, fielding 50 e-mails a day (her Web site is http://faculty. washington.edu/hcallus/), touring Europe with the Bridge Ensemble, developing a new outreach program to teach the viola in area high schools, founding the Seattle Viola Society, writing an article for Strad magazine, working on summer programs at Vermont's Killington Music Festival and playing three concertos with university ensembles this season.

You might call her "high-energy." High energy and good fortune, Callus feels, have brought her where she is today, after she decided on a last-minute impulse to accompany a friend to Switzerland a decade ago. At the time, she had been engaged in studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London (where she earned a degree with first-class honors), but when she played for violist Paul Coletti in Switzerland, he urged her to move to Baltimore and study with him at the Peabody Institute.

"I'm not an impulsive person," explains Callus, "but this just seemed right. I'm so glad I didn't stay in England. There are so many more opportunities here, and I don't miss it at all. I felt more confident right away in the U.S. My personality isn't really typically English: I'm more outspoken, more outgoing."

After six years at Peabody, where she became Coletti's teaching assistant, Callus spent a year in a chamber orchestra that wasn't an especially good fit for her. She decided to follow one more stride in Coletti's footsteps (he preceded her on the UW viola faculty, but left several years ago) into a university position, which, she felt, would allow her the freedom to develop into new directions.

Coincidentally, the UW faculty position was open. Despite her long list of honors and awards, Callus didn't expect to get the job because of her youth and inexperience - but when the UW said yes, she jumped. Not long after her arrival, the founding violist of Seattle's prestigious Bridge Ensemble left the group, and Callus was asked to join in 1998.

Since then, she has participated in an active Bridge concert schedule, including the world premiere of a new quartet by Giya Kancheli and a tour of Russia and Holland. Music from that tour will be broadcast over National Public Radio in March.

A noted exponent of new music, Callus also has participated in world premieres of works by Ken Benshoof, Michael Brown and Nigel Clarke (as well as the English premiere of Alfred Schnittke's Trio Sonata).

You'd think all this playing would keep her busy enough, but Callus also has her eye on developing talent. She formed a group called B.R.A.T.S. - Bratsche Resources and Teaching in the Schools (the word "Bratsche," pronounced "BROUGHT-sha," means "viola" in German).

This outreach team is made up of UW viola students who go into the local high schools in order to help young viola students who don't have specialist instruction on their instrument.

"BRATS really makes a difference," says Callus.

"We leave behind a workbook that we designed and wrote, with all kinds of information for students and teachers for the classroom environment. We printed up `I'm a BRAT' T-shirts, which sold like crazy. We've received some funding from the UW, and recently held our first Viola Day, which attracted over 40 young violists to the university campus. I'm writing an article about this for the February issue of Strad magazine."

Because there was no existing organization for the region's professional and student violists, Callus founded the Seattle Viola Society, which has what Callus calls "some fun events coming up, and an honorary board that includes some grand old masters of the viola - Milton Katims, Vilem Sokol and Alan Iglitzin among them. I'm hoping to encourage and to connect all the talent that we have here in Seattle."

There are three good chances to hear Callus herself in concertos with UW ensembles in the coming months. On Feb. 17, she plays the Bartok Viola Concerto with the University Symphony and conductor Peter ErÃos; on May 22, she performs Vaughan Williams' "Flos Campi" (for solo viola, chorus and orchestra) with the University Chorale (Geoffrey Boers, director). Hindemith's tricky "Kammermusik" will feature Callus with the UW Wind Ensemble May 25, under the direction of Tim Saltzman.

Additional concerts in March and April will find Callus in chamber-music performances with UW faculty artists Ronald Patterson, Rebecca Henderson and Rajan Krishnaswami, as well as with pianist Rachel Matthews at Town Hall in the new series, City Music.

Oh, and she also is organizing a Millennium Viola Play-In for next month.

Stay tuned to the Web site for other details, which are likely to develop hourly, given Callus' prodigious energy level and enthusiasm for her instrument.

"There's nothing like the sound of a good viola," she declares.

"My own isn't a valuable historic instrument. But it has a great, dark, chocolatey sound, and it's that sound I love.