Helen Callus’s Violin-Free Zone

For the opening concert of the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra’s 2007-08 season, the viola will not be playing (if you’ll pardon the expression) second fiddle to other string section members, such as the more robust violin. In fact, there won’t be any violins at all.

SBCO Maestro Heiichiro Ohyama, himself a violist of no little renown, has programmed a violin-free evening for the opening concert, pairing himself with UCSB music professor Helen Callus on the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 by J.S. Bach, who was also a violist and scored the final concerto for two viola soloists accompanied only by low strings (cello and double bass) and continuo. Brahms’ second Serenade, which also eschews violins, and Dvorak’s Serenade for Winds round out the program.

Callus, who arrived in Santa Barbara to take over Ohyama’s scholarly teaching position after he retired from UCSB in 2004, has an enviable resume of her own. She’s performed at several prestigious chamber music festivals from Seattle to St. Petersburg, concretized at international viola congresses including New Zealand and Minnesota, and can be heard regularly as a solo artist on radio and TV including frequent appearances on “Performance Today” and “National Public Radio.”

We caught up with her for a brief chat earlier this week.

Q. Why did you take up the viola?

A. When I was a young student, a teacher told me “You sound like a violist” when I played the violin. It’s a kind of vibrato, the way you move your right arm… a certain sound that you make. It’s more physical than anything else. There aren’t enough good viola players, so it’s also a good business move to consider viola as a second option. It’s a way to get work. But for me, I just fell in love with the sound. I realized it was what I had been trying to do, and it works on this instrument.

What can you tell me about the SBCO concert?

I’ve wanted to play with them for a long time because of its and Heiichiro’s reputation. He’s been absolutely lovely with me since I came to town and we’ve been looking for a collaboration ever since. This concert (with no violins) is a terrific thing anyway, because you are presenting the viola in its best possible light. It can be hard to cut through the timbres of violin in an orchestra, so it’s the best way for it to be heard.

Ohyama played with the L.A. Philharmonic for 13 years, but you have not gone the orchestra route.

No, most of us end up teaching or in an orchestra. My choice came out of desire to be my own boss, to have some control musically over what I do and how I do it. I have the greatest respect for orchestral violists; some of the finest players in the world sit in them…. But I believe we really can sustain a great career as a soloist. I know I set myself up for failure, but I’m very enthusiastic and I think that breathes through to people. It hasn’t been easy. You do have to push, but I’ve been fortunate...And there aren’t as many good concertos for viola as there are for violin. There are only 15 that we ever get asked to play. We master those and move on. So we can have a life.

And yet you also teach full time at UCSB.

It’s important to be a teacher, too. We can offer something unique to students as we stand on the stage each week and do it ourselves. UCSB is a unique atmosphere because I can recruit the highest level students for my studio and work with them in a much more intense situation than I could at say Juilliard, Indiana, or Cleveland. That’s very important to me because you can make a difference, you can turn them around. Often the students here haven’t had the greatest chances in the professional world to get the skill and opportunity to compete on a national level. Helping them get there, there’s nothing better than that. That’s the whole point of teaching.

Event will be held on Tuesday, September 18 at 7:30 pm at the Lobero Theatre, 33 W. Canon Perdido Street. Tickets are $43 & $38. For more information call 963-0761 PHOTO CAPTION: