Walla Walla festival pairs wine, classical music

Staff writerJune 13, 2014 

What makes the Walla Walla Chamber Music Festival – on through June – so different? Well, for starters, it's the brainchild of a Tacoma husband-and-wife musician couple, Tim Christie and Maria Sampen. It brings classical music to the community at wineries, restaurants and more. But it's also about giving the musicians themselves the freedom to take risks.

ROSEMARY PONNEKANTI — Staff writer

— On the dusty main street of nearby Dayton, a couple heads into a 100-year-old brick building that is now home to a mead winery. Tasting honey wine isn’t a usual Monday morning activity – nor is listening to the music of Anton Webern, an early 20th-century Viennese composer.

But the combination of wineries, chamber music and little country towns is what the Walla Walla Chamber Music Festival is all about. A Tacoma couple started the festival, which runs through June.

“What we’re doing is taking it down to fix the intonation” says Tim Christie, holding his viola lightly and chatting with the Monday crowd at Mace Mead Works. “Working intonation first thing in the morning is a bit like eating your vegetables. It’s good for you”

Laughing along with the audience, Christie and violinists Maria Sampen and Christina McGann put instruments under chins and start some more slow chords, sinking into each note. It’s not normally the way people hear Dvórak’s “Terzettos” or Webern’s “Langsamer Satz” which they’ll play after the break. But it’s what Christie and Sampen had in mind when they started the festival seven years ago. The husband-and-wife duo teach at the University of Puget Sound and play regionally and nationally – but they also love sharing chamber music, and found this Eastern Washington town the perfect place to do it.

“When we first visited here in 2007, we were struck by the warmth of the community and the scenic beauty here, and we thought, ‘Let’s ask if we can play in the local chamber festival’” Christie recalls.

But there wasn’t a chamber festival, so they started one themselves, with the goal of bringing audiences into the process of music-making through open rehearsals like the one in Mace Mead Works, outreach concerts at the local VA hospital, and explanatory musical talks at wineries. There are formal concerts, held in the restored Powerhouse Theater, but there are also interview concerts showcasing individual musicians (the “Portrait of an Artist” series), programs mixing up styles and musicians (the “Collage” concert coming up Tuesday at Charles Smith Winery) and kids’ concerts at Fort Walla Walla.

The festival also mixes up repertoire: This year, the focus composer is Ravel, but his work is surrounded by the music of Copland, Debussy, Reger and Schubert. The Collage concert, this year themed “8 Seasons” seamlessly dovetails Vivaldi, Piazzolla and Takemitsu.

And all of it is made accessible with plenty of free events.

“What makes our festival different is that we emphasize process more than product” says Christie. “Experiencing classical music is not just about dressing up in fancy clothes and hearing something played from a distance. It’s not so far from popular music in that there’s a way of being social and participating in classical music that I think is more authentic to what a concert experience would have been in, say, Mozart’s day”

At the Mead Works event, for example, there are nods and chuckles as the quartet discusses Webern’s love life and the audience offers a couple of ad-hoc questions. Christie chats between musical phrases, explaining what the musicians are discussing and clarifying musical terms.

“Hearing musicians interact and talk – I love it” says Mead Works co-owner Reggie Mace, who met Christie in nearby Waitsburg during last year’s festival and asked to be on the venue list. “That’s where the Walla Walla Chamber Music Festival shines — Tim’s not formal. He goes to people, to smaller communities. We’re excited to be part of the festival”

“It’s very interesting to see the interplay, the detail and teamwork that you need to bring this all together” says Chuck McBride, who’s come from Montana for the whole month of the festival. “To see how much there is to (chamber music) is astonishing. It gives you a new appreciation for it”

McBride used to live in California’s Napa Valley and likens the festival to the early days of the music festival there. It’s an analogy that suits Christie and his colleagues, who say the festival is growing.

“The events this year are mostly sold out – that’s a sign of how the community has embraced this festival” says violinist Stephen Miahky, who has played at the festival since the beginning. “It no longer feels like something that’s trying to sell: It’s sold. It’s part of the culture now”

At Canoe Ridge Vineyard that night, most of the 100-odd seats in the soaring, historic trolley building are filled. As Christie takes them through nearly an hour of explaining Webern’s music, Romantic heritage and atonal development, with some Bach and Mahler thrown in, the audience is completely attentive.

The sunlight and birdsong pouring in from outside, plus the smooth swirling cabernet, are the bonus extras that make this festival special.

“We have a very active arts life here in Walla Walla – we have several orchestras, three colleges, poets and writers and artists” says Tim Brown, a retired orchestra teacher and cellist who offered to help out after the first festival and is now on the board of the nonprofit that has inspired other festivals like Dance Lab and Shakespeare Walla Walla. “But this adds a different element to the whole community – the element of quality. These folks are as good as they get. Tim’s a fabulous player who manages to find the essence of these pieces and make it the most important thing in the world right then. It gives a level of skill and wonder that nothing else has provided here”

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568

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