Helen Callus, Centrum’s Artistic Director for the Port Townsend Chamber Music Festival, is an international recording artist and the first elected female president of the American Viola Society. She is a regular performer on radio and television as a recitalist, chamber music collaborator, and concerto soloist. Her debut recording, Portrait of the Viola, and her subsequent recordings have met with wide critical acclaim. Callus currently serves as Associate Professor of Viola at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Centrum: You left your undergraduate studies, at London’s Royal Academy of Music, a year early in order to study in the United States with Paul Coletti. How
did that experience change your playing career?
Helen Callus: Although I was very grateful to my teachers at the RAM, I had started to wonder about my future and whether or not the UK was the right place for me. I met Paul Coletti at a chamber music program in Switzerland and he offered me a scholarship to study with him in the States. I decided it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, my family agreed, and I never looked back! Through Paul I was able to really develop as a musician and artist. The emphasis of his teaching was to consider the human aspect to all music, and it opened my eyes and ears to all sorts of other types of experiences and to learn from everything around me. My lessons were challenging but I worked harder than ever before and in a very short amount of time I felt I had leaped to a new level. That was the turning point in my development.
C: You have done much of your work as an individual performer, rather than
as part of an ensemble or a quartet. What led to your decision to pursue a career as a solo artist?
HC: I had never imagined that I would really play in an orchestra. As a young student in London I had always felt that there were other interesting things that I could do as a musician and violist. I had begun with a very broad and well-rounded education in music at a Saturday music school in London, and this had opened my eyes to all sorts of possibilities. I took lessons in voice, piano, violin, and viola. I wrote music and could improvise and extemporize and performed many times on all those instruments. I was concertmaster of the orchestra. But there was never one path and this was encouraged by my teachers. I never even thought of myself as a “violist.” More like a musician or artist. But once I decided to study the viola in college and focus on one thing—the one area I thought I could really make a unique contribution in—it was assumed that I would end up in an orchestra. But I knew this wasn’t going to be my destiny and when I met Coletti he seemed to reinforce my notion that it was possible to do other things and be more of an individual if I wanted to.
It is a very unusual choice to make because there is the danger that it could all go terribly wrong and you would have no “job,” no income, and no profession. I was lucky in that I knew I wanted to teach and that position would allow me to develop all those other aspects of my personality. It would give me the base from which I could really be my own person and do as much or as little as I chose. I wanted to write articles for magazines, make recordings, play chamber music, collaborate at music festivals, be given the opportunity to develop organizations, tour the world, give master classes, and meet young violists. The freedom to do all these things was really suited to a university-type position—not an orchestra. But I also chose that path because I wanted to develop my own voice and my individuality. I felt I could say something unique and wanted the freedom to try to pursue that.
C: In your albums, including Portrait of the Viola, …Is But a Dream, and
your most recent recording, British Viola Concerti, you play works from a wide variety of composers over the past two hundred years. When you record, how do you evaluate whether to play contemporary pieces or more historical pieces?
HC: All I am really concerned with at this juncture is beautiful, interesting music. So far—due to the limitations of the viola repertoire—I spend most of my time in the late eighteen-hundreds and the early nineteen-hundreds. This is when the majority of the viola’s most influential work was written. In the end, only a few works remain in the standard literature and I wish to showcase and introduce the audience to new versions of those works and also bring in, by comparison, something new by a peer or colleague of the era. The idea is to bring to the audience new works that complement the works they already love and cherish.
C: How are living composers defining chamber music for themselves, for the genre, and for you?
HC: Throughout history composers have viewed chamber music as the ultimate
medium in which they can express their most personal thoughts. When you think back to the Beethoven string quartets or the Shostakovich quartets, they use these smaller ensembles as a means to be expressive on a more intimate and emotional level. It is, I think, why so many people and performers are attracted to the medium. For many students it is the highest goal to attain—to play chamber music on a professional level.
Modern composers still seem to view chamber music as the height of their craft and the challenge is to do it well. A composer like Giya Kancheli, well known for his expansive orchestral scores, uses chamber music to bring us closer together in the touching and quiet music so well suited to just four players.
As a violist, it is within the chamber music medium that we really get to shine. Music of such high quality and substance cannot be found in the viola repertoire alone (unless transcribed for the instrument) and it is our only chance to play masterpieces by composers like Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Dvořák, and Haydn.
C: As a teacher of music, what are your goals for the students who study
with you? What do you most want them to take away from their time with you?
HC: When we start to talk about music from an emotional aspect, we can begin to relate to it in a very meaningful way. This helps us learn how to communicate when we perform and make it meaningful for the audience. There are many things I strive to achieve when teaching, not only to prepare students for the real world of finding a job and other experiences, but also to help them develop as individuals and artists. All students need to raise their level to the highest order when studying but they also need to develop as people. My aim in teaching is to help them grow into themselves as collaborators, artists, musicians, and leaders. This doesn’t mean I am not a taskmaster for technique. Without the most refined technique you cannot express what you are truly trying to say or hear in your head. This means that an enormous amount of our time has to be on refining our skills. Those skills ultimately give performers choices in careers and in performances.