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Margo Kline: Helen Callus Wraps Up ‘Bach Project’ In Style

The violist once again demonstrates her mastery of the music

Violist Helen Callus completed her series of string works by J.S. Bach last weekend at the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara with serene, assured performances of Suite No. 5 in C-Minor and the Suite No. 6 in G-Major.

The program by Callus, long hailed as one of the world’s great violists, was augmented with lectures by two advanced graduate students from the UCSB Music Department. Jacob Adams commented on Suite No. 5; Linda Shaver-Gleason gave a skilled analysis of Suite No. 6, and also wrote the program notes.

The sanctuary of the Unitarian Society was nearly full for the program, once more demonstrating the deep appreciation of serious music by Santa Barbara’s knowledgeable audiences.

Callus enjoys a full concretizing schedule and records with, among others, ASV Sanctuary Classics in Britain, Boston Records and ECM’s New Series. She will record a disc of concertos with the BBC Concert Orchestra next year. She is also a professor of music at UCSB, writes for music publications, and gives lectures at such institutions as the Indiana University School of Music and the New England Conservatory.

At the Unitarian performance, Callus was garbed in a long, black skirt and black top, the outfit’s severity relieved by a floating, handpainted silk overdress in vivid colors. Her presence, as always, was confident and musically unimpeachable.

The Suite No. 5, written when Bach was kapellmeister at Cothen around 1720-21, is in the key of C Minor, a departure from his customary use of major keys. It also features a top string tuned down a whole step from A to G.

In his discussion before the performance, Adams explained that this form of “mistuning” was not unusual in the Baroque era and is known as “scordatura.” Its main effect is to darken the mood of the music.

After a brief pause during which audience members stood and stretched, Callus returned for the Suite No. 6. This piece, like Bach’s other string suites, concentrates on dance forms of the day. It was more lively and had a more rustic character than the No. 5. It ended the evening on a high note, with Callus called back for several bows.

The performance concluded Callus’ project during the last months of playing all six of the Bach string suites in concert. It has given lovers of serious music a rare opportunity to hear Bach’s complete imagining of this repertoire. It also has given Callus the opportunity to once again demonstrate her mastery of this priceless music.

— Margo Kline covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor.

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