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Mimir Chamber Music Festival

by Josephine Vains

Mimir Chamber Music Festival attracts accolades across two continents, whether at its home base in Fort Worth Texas, or at its second home at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. This musical feast has also just enjoyed its 20th anniversary in America where the Festival had its humble beginnings. Artistic Director Curt Thompson, Associate Professor of Music (Violin) and Head of Strings at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music has made this chamber-music-mad town his own and this week-long festival draws in audiences and students alike for intense supination before the altar of chamber music.

Building on Melbourne’s rich tradition of chamber music, Mimir (named for the Norse God of wisdom) features musicians from North America’s most celebrated symphony orchestras (Chicago Symphony, Houston Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra), Grammy Award-nominated recording artists and faculty members from leading conservatories in the United States and Australia.

Part of the Mimir magic too involves a mentor program with emerging string quartets from the Conservatorium, for whom a packed week of chamber music study will reap personal and musical rewards. For the sad lack of a summer music course culture in Australia, Mimir is a boon for these lucky students. They’ll engage with each mentor in a number of public masterclasses (I recommend attending these as a rare glimpse into the interpretive problem solving of quartet playing).

Wednesday night’s Concert 1 performance opened with a meditative Brahms and his Two Songs for Alto, Viola and Piano – enchanting music featuring Australian mezzo soprano Victoria Lambourn in one beautifully enunciated phrase to the next. Regular Mimir violist Joan Derhovsepian has the middle voice knack of knowing when to agitate and when to soften her tone, especially in the second song ‘Geistliches Wiegenlied’. John Novacek’s piano was a delight here, ever-rippling in the background and never too present.

The core work of the evening came in the Piano Quintet of Amy Beach, programmed no doubt to celebrate the 150th anniversary of her birth. Beach’s music is sadly undervalued in this country, although her music was hailed across North America and Europe during her lifetime. She holds a special place in the modern pantheon of American music, not only as a female composer at the turn of the 20th century but as a distinctive compositional voice, made all the more remarkable due to the artistic straitjacket she endured as a married woman. A synaesthete, her Piano Quintet centres around the key of F sharp minor, and in her case associates with the ‘colour’ black. As a string player myself this is such an unusual key and one which brings fragility to the strings, not to mention a significant intonational challenge, which was mostly well managed.

Novacek’s carefully balanced piano always allowed Stephen Rose’s first violin line to cut through, from the crystalline opening to moments of more full-bodied resonance. Cellist Brant Taylor features in most performances this week, and his unerring projection and his authority continued to impress, especially in the Adagio middle movement.

Mendelssohn’s A minor string quartet made for a satisfying conclusion, a pleasure to hear such collegial playing unblemished by ego and one-upmanship. Violinists Jun Iwasaki and Curt Thompson in particular gave a masterclass in great ensemble playing, one which I hope was not lost on the student cohort in the audience.

The Concert series continues tonight with esteemed Australian pianist Caroline Almonte joining John Novacek in Rachmaninov’s duelling second Suite for Two Pianos and is paired with Beethoven’s late E flat quartet and a rarely heard string trio of Jean Sibelius

Mimir Chamber Music Festival, 29 August until 2 September 2018, Melba Hall, Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, Parkville.

CONCERT 2, Friday 31 August, 7.30pm
Jean Sibelius – String Trio in G minor; Sergei Rachmaninov – Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos (Op. 17); Ludwig van Beethoven – Quartet in E-flat Major (Op. 127)

CONCERT 3, Sunday 2 September, 3.00pm
Franz Schubert – Quartet in E-flat Major, D. 87; George Walker – Quartet No. 1; Johannes Brahms – Quintet in F minor (Op. 34)

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