A rare opportunity to hear some of the best North American musicians performing gems of classical music.

The Mimir Chamber Music Festival returns for its fourth season at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, starting today. Leaders of The Cleveland Orchestra, the Chicago, Houston and Nashville symphonies will join me, Curt Thompson, in a series of concerts and master classes at Melba Hall together with acclaimed Melbourne pianists Kristian Chong and Benjamin Martin.

Pianist Johan Fröst and I founded Mimir in 1998 at the TCU School of Music, Fort Worth, a city known internationally as the home of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Named after the Norse god of wisdom, it was originally designed to take place in Sweden. We were pursuing doctoral degrees at Rice University in Houston when we had the idea to try our hands at starting a festival. However, before completing my degree, I was awarded a violin professorship at the TCU School of Music in 1997, so we decided to launch Mimir in Fort Worth instead. Johan’s brother, famed clarinettist Martin Fröst, Chicago Symphony cellist Brant Taylor and Stephen Rose of The Cleveland Orchestra joined us in those early years.

With 19 seasons under its belt in Texas, Mimir has grown to be one of the leading chamber music events in the United States, where it was described by The New York Times as a “summer hot spot” for classical music, and has been included eight times in annual Top 10 Musical Events of the Year listings by The Dallas Morning News.

While the performances in those first seasons were top notch, running a festival was something none of us knew how to do. It was an exercise in ‘fake it until you make it’, which I’m proud to say we have. In our first two years, it seemed as if there were more of us on stage than in the audience. While that wasn’t quite true, it isn’t an exaggeration to say that we could occasionally hear crickets at the concerts (they rally in the hot summer months in Texas). By the third year, a volunteer committee was in full gear and numbers started to soar. Within a few years we were bringing extra seats into the hall to accommodate our audience.

I had a conversation with the late John Hopkins, who was in part responsible for my initial interest in Melbourne. Sir John had brought my violin teacher, Nelli Shkolnikova, to Melbourne following her defection from the USSR in the early ’80s. After retiring from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, where I studied with her from 1988-94, Nelli returned to Melbourne in 2005 and resumed teaching violin at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. I visited her in early 2010 shortly before her death, and I met John on that visit. John persuaded me to apply for the position of Head of Strings, which came to fruition two years later.

While having lunch with John, who himself was quite ill at the time, I suggested Mimir might have an important impact on the development of strings at the MCM while becoming a significant player in an already highly-developed audience for chamber music in Melbourne. With the support of Professors Gary McPherson (Director, MCM), Barry Conyngham (Dean, VCA&MCM) and the University of Melbourne community, we are achieving precisely these goals. The only thing missing for Mimir in Melbourne is to build the audiences that we enjoy in Texas, where extra seats are often required in the hall. As in Texas, those who come once to our performance nearly always return. We’re hoping that this sort of word of mouth promotion will succeed here in Victoria.

Mimir operates as two festivals in one. While its performing series delivers high-octane concerts from our professional artists, hours of chamber music coaching also take place each day. More than 250 young musicians have participated in our intensive workshops in the US, and many of them can now be heard in leading orchestras and chamber ensembles including the Detroit, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Monaco symphonies thanks, in part, to their experiences at Mimir. More than 100 Melbourne Conservatorium students have now experienced this unique opportunity, and hundreds more have been touched by demonstrations, performances and master classes. Since 2013, three Melbourne Conservatorium quartets have travelled to the US, where they participated in Mimir Texas and were enthusiastically received by our American audience.

Melbourne Conservatorium ensemble, Curve Quartet

The secret to Mimir is really no secret at all. Assemble world-class musicians, construct provocative programmes, offer an incredible educational opportunity to aspiring pre-professionals, develop a grass-roots support system, and add considerable amounts of very hard work. There you have it! Oh, and lots of time. Nearly 20 years on in the US, and soon four in Australia, we have presented leaders of the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Grammy Award-nominated recording artists and teaching staff from leading conservatories in the United States, Germany, Sweden, Bulgaria and Australia.

What will our audience experience at a Mimir concert? Scott Cantrell of The Dallas Morning News recently had this to say: “What struck me both Thursday and Friday nights was the musicians’ total identification – visceral as well as intellectual – with the music. These were those rarest of performances, less interpretations than total absorptions. The performers became the music.”

This year’s guests are Jun Iwasaki (Concertmaster, Nashville Symphony Orchestra), Stephen Rose (Principal Second Violin, The Cleveland Orchestra), Joan DerHovsepian (Associate Principal Viola, Houston Symphony) and Brant Taylor (cellist, Chicago Symphony). Melbourne pianists Benjamin Martin and Kristian Chong will join us for Brahms’ A Major Piano Quartet, Op. 26, and the Fauré Piano Quartet in G Minor, Op. 45. We also look forward to performing string quartets by Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy, Turina and Schubert, as well as a lesser-known quartet by Respighi and the Australian premiere of From Amber Frozen by Mason Bates.This is a rare opportunity to hear some of the best North American musicians performing gems of classical music. 

Mimir Chamber Music Festival 2016 runs August 29-September 4 at Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. 


Dr. Curt Thompson is Associate Professor and Head of Strings at the University of Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.