The Mimir Chamber Music Festival is an anomaly.
Conventional wisdom says that a small, tightly-knit ensemble like a string quartet must spend a significant amount of time together to play precisely and with a shared, “ESP-ish,” interpretation.
Mimir musicians, on the other hand, only assemble for a few days in late June and early July in Fort Worth, with an encore week in Australia. Yet, they play with a common polish and finesse.
However it happens, Fort Worth audiences are the winners — and they know it. PepsiCo Recital Hall, on the campus of TCU, was almost filled to capacity for the opening concert on Thursday evening.
The program featured something that has been lacking in previous seasons: a work by a living composer, Mason Bates. In fact, there are two more works by living composers yet to come in the series, which runs until July 8. (Bravo, Mimir!)
Bates is all the rage these days, widely performed, and deservedly so. This piece, titled From Amber Frozen, featured violinists Curt Thompson (also the Mimir artistic director) and Jun Iwasaki. Violist Joan DerHovsepian and cellist Brant Taylor joined them. It was a quartet composed of some of the best players anywhere.
The title, according to the composer’s own program notes, is derived from his concept of “…a rose-colored world as if viewed by an insect from the Jurassic, forever sealed in a crystal of dried amber on a tree.” (Sounds like an award-winning movie premise.) Bates’ program notes go on to describe music that passes “…through the prism of the string quartet’s rich and varied textures.”
What we got was, actually, quite close to that.
Bates presented a series of seemingly random music events, mostly dissonant and unpredictable pizzicati, eventually morphing into some proto-melodic materials. The piece was as obtuse as its title, but quite enjoyable in its own strange way. The audience demonstrated its appreciation at the end.
Bates’ frozen insect was book-ended by some Beethoven and Brahms, allowing Taylor to quip that the concert “… presented the three B’s — Beethoven, Brahms and Bates.”
Beethoven was represented by his String Quartet in G Major, the second of six in his Opus 18 grouping. Violinist Stephen Rose joined Iwasaki, DerHovsepian and Taylor for the performance. The players brought out the influences of both Haydn and Mozart, employing a hat-tip to the Classical period’s performance practices. G major is a happy key, and Beethoven wrote some jolly music for this quartet. The foursome certainly caught the mood musically, but a sporadic smile would have helped to visually convey this mood, as well.
The highlight of the concert was Brahms’ Piano Quartet in A Major, Op. 26, which closed the program. The superb pianist Alessio Bax joined Rose, DerHovsepian and Taylor. The ensemble jettisoned both Beethoven and Bates, stylistically, and took on a Brahmsian heft, especially in the sublime slow movement.
Brahms wrote this piece to display his talents as both a composer and pianist. But Bax, one of the best collaborative pianists in the business, may have erred to the conservative. In Brahms’ hands, the piano part would surely have dominated. However, Bax’s musical decision to be one of four, instead of one and three, revealed some delights usually hidden when there is a heavier hand at the keyboard.
The ensemble was rewarded for their efforts with a well-deserved, spontaneous standing ovation.
19th annual Mimir Chamber Music Festival
- Concerts take place 7:30 p.m. tonight, Tuesday and Friday at PepsiCo Recital Hall on TCU campus and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Kimbell Art Museum.
- For tickets, $30, and complete schedule, visit www.mimirfestival.org.