Angela Allen

Good wine is a natural companion to great music, perhaps better than strawberries and cream in Oregon’s midsummer. In pairing the two, the old world meets the new, and each enhances the other, says Leo Eguchi, co-founder of August’s Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival. 

A cellist and wine collector, Eguchi explains how the alchemy works: “In the summer of 1890, an aging Johannes Brahms felt that he had one last mountain to summit, and it was a big one. He sat down to write one final piece before retirement, and he poured in everything left to say. The resulting work, the String Quintet in G Major, opus 111, demonstrates a perspective that only an aging master can provide: exuberant joy, mournful tragedy, love lost and won … in short, a life complete and well-lived.”  

(As it turned out, the piece wasn’t Brahms’ swansong.)

The vintage that partners with Brahms’ piece during the first festival weekend, Eguchi explains, is “restrained or extravagant. Archery Summit’s 2016 Red Hills Vineyard Pinot Noir has a depth and balance to accompany the string quintet. Ripe cherry and roasted tea flavors mirror the music’s surprise turns from major to minor, and the wine strikingly shows the same warm richness that can only be the voice of Brahms, deepened even further in the mid-range by this quintet’s additional (extra) viola.”

Give it a whirl!

Now in its fourth year and the brainchild of Eguchi and wife/fellow musician/onetime Oregonian Sasha Callahan, the festival combines chamber music with some of Willamette Valley’s best vintages. The three weekends of music join the two-year-old Aquilon Music Festival as a sign of cultural growth in Oregon’s wine country, less than an hour from most parts of Portland. Archery Summit joins J. Christopher WinesSokol Blosser Winery and Elk Cove Vineyards as hosts. 

This year’s music theme is New World/Old World. “We’ve designed each program around a major pillar of the Old World (Brahms, Beethoven Bach) in conversation with New World voices that help us hear the masterpieces differently,” says Callahan, a violinist. 

On Aug 3 and 4 at J. Christopher Wines’ Newberg barrel room, you’ll hear J.S. Bach’s huge Goldberg Variations paired with contemporary composers Caroline Shaw’s “Limestone and Felt” and Missy Mazzoli’“Lies You Can Believe In.”  Shaw’s work explores Bach’s contemplative, sacred components, while Mazzoli plays with more rock ‘n’ roll variations. Throughout the concert, the music is matched with three 2-ounce pours of J. Christopher’s wines.

The second weekend, Aug. 10 and 11, features Brahms’ quintet with works by composers Amy Beach, Caroline Shaw and violist Kenji Bunch, a friend of Callahan’s from Wilson High School days in Portland, a prolific Oregon-based composer, and a member of the festival group. Saturday’s concert is at Archery Summit Winery in Dayton, and Sunday’s at Elk Cove Vineyards in Gaston.

Jessie Montgomery, a New York City-based composer and violinist, will be at Sokol Blosser Winery for two concerts on the final weekend, Aug. 17 and 18.  A student of Joan Tower’s, last year’s composer-in-residence, Montgomery and the chamber musicians will play her exciting “Source Code” and “Strum.” Her music will be paired with Baroque composer Elisabeth–Claude Jacquet’s Sonata for D for Violin and Cello and Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet No 15. Op. 132, his prayer of thanksgiving composed after he recovered from a serious illness.   

Montgomery, 37, who has known Eguchi since high school years when they attended Meadow Mount Summer String Camp in upstate New York, is the festival’s composer-in-residence. The daughter of an actress/playwright/professor mother and musician father, Montgomery is an accomplished violinist and has been lauded for her ability to infuse her music with various genres including jazz, rock, classical and her own innovative voice. She is a member of the Catalyst Quartet, a collaborator with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble, and a recipient of numerous commissions from chamber groups, dance companies and orchestras. As well as playing violin, she will be on hand to talk about her pieces. Look for an OAW story on her in mid-August.   

A schedule and musicians’ biographies are on the festival web site. In addition to Callahan, Eguchi, and Bunch, string players include Charles Noble and Megumi Stohs Lewis. Amelia Lukas adds her flute-playing to the group during the second weekend for Amy Beach’s  Variations for Flute and String Quartet.

All concerts begin at 5 p.m. Cost is $50 for general admission; $35 for members of the hosting winery’s wine club. Season subscriptions are $120; students and youth can attend for $20. Expect three wines per concert, with more for purchase. All concerts are inside in barrel or tasting rooms, due to better acoustics than the outside world provides and for the protection of instruments. Find tickets here.

With the event designed to be relaxing and intimate, the concerts provide chances to open music- and wine-lovers’ senses to time-tested and new-fangled sounds and tastes.