Ryan Chartrand

A Saturday night perfomance at the Christopher Cohan Performing Arts Center held a delightful mix of classical music, cheerful concertgoers and a very special guest.

World-renowned violist Helen Callus joined the San Luis Obispo Symphony for a performance of Walton’s “Viola Concerto” and Schumann’s “Symphony No. 4.”

Saturday afternoon’s free rehearsal viewing left not a single seat in the Performing Arts Center unoccupied. Late-comers gathered in the foyer, seated in folding chairs, on the stairs, or on the floor to watch the performance on the TV monitors and listen to the music over the loudspeakers.

The evening performance had a full house as well.

The first movement began with delicate, fairy-like string sounds, as if to announce the piece’s commencement timidly and to politely invite the concertgoer to listen. The short draw of the bows on the various strings made for a graceful and light opening, contrasted later by quick, urgent tugs on the strings for a more serious sound.

Conductor Michael Nowak exited briefly after each movement, drawing great applause each time he left and re-entered. Nowak has conducted the San Luis Obispo symphony for more than 20 years.

The second movement rolled in slowly with lower, fluid and smoother notes, and was later taken by rough, disjointed sound. At one point, the movement engaged the orchestra in a “wave,” an auditory version of an action you might see at a baseball game. The wave rolled from low to high string sounds, with sprinklings of horns for emphasis.

A light battle between the high and low pitched strings ended the movement. The high strings had a pondering and inquisitive call, the low strings had a solid and reassuring answer.

It was joyous and ecstatic at times. It was a composer’s heart bursting into literal song – or symphony.

Callus evoked an unparalleled sound out of the viola, a full range of heart-melting to heartbreaking tones. She played with a graceful and seasoned elegance that can only be accomplished through years of painstaking practice and literal mastery of an instrument. All eyes were on her, as viewers sat up straight, moved to the edge of their seats and held the handrail as they peered over the balcony in the gallery. A joy to watch, Callus carried out each note with precision and love.

Callus was born in England and attended the Royal Academy of Music in London. She is currently the associate professor of viola at the University of California at Santa Barbara. She was also the first woman to be elected president of the American Viola Society, a position she currently holds. Callus has performed throughout the U.S. and in Europe, Russia, New Zealand and Australia.

The performance was the third installment of “Classics in the Cohan.” A beautifully executed performance, it is hard to imagine that any concertgoer left without feeling the true human emotion and heartfelt expression behind the music.

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