Melba Hall, University of Melbourne
August 31, 2018

Mimir is the Norse god of wisdom and there is indeed a great deal of wisdom in having music students interact with seasoned professionals both through participating in masterclasses and observing performances. The Mimir Festival is the brainchild of Curt Thompson, head of strings at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. He founded the festival some 21 years ago in Texas and its Melbourne manifestation is now celebrating its sixth season, affording a welcome cultural exchange between Australian and North American artists.

The second evening concert in this year’s festival comprised some rather disparate repertoire. Sibelius’s early Trio in G minor is a strange musical torso – the first and only completed movement of a projected longer work. Despite an atmospheric opening with resonant cello pizzicato from the Chicago Symphony’s Brant Taylor, the work tries to deliver a romantic fullness which is difficult to achieve with only three instruments. There were some meaningful exchanges between Thompson’s violin and Brant’s cello, but much of the harmonic infill was left to Joan DerHovsepian on viola, who, along with her colleagues did her best to project cohesion in Melba Hall’s dry and unforgiving acoustic.

Rachmaninov’s attractive Suite No 2 for Two Pianos, Op. 17 changed the mood to one of elegance and wit. Well respected local, Caroline Almonte was joined by American, John Novacek in a thoughtful and well coordinated account, investing each movement with a character of its own. The opening March delivered plenty of the composer’s customary rhythmic propulsion married to his heady, hyper-romantic lyricism, while the succeeding Waltz burbled along amiably without any undue fuss, but with melodic strands clearly delineated. Almonte and Novacek luxuriated in the harmonic perfume of the Romance and the richness of its orchestral textures, even if the prevailing acoustic did make the two Steinways sound clangourous at times, particularly in the upper half of the keyboard. The concluding Tarantella came across with admirable passion and fervour.

After the abandon of the Rachmaninov, the musical palate was cleansed by the sobriety of Beethoven’s Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 127. The ensemble was energetically led by Jun Iwaski with Stephen Rose as second violin joined by DerHovsepian and Taylor. Unified in artistic purpose the quartet moved well together, effectively tracing out the architecture of each movement as well as allowing space for the examination of musical detail. The outer movements were marked by rhythmic tautness and clarity of articulation, making for a wonderful contrast with the slow, second movement whose variations unfolded with engaging beauty, thanks in particular to Taylor’s accomplished playing. A firm grasp of the rhythmic relationships of the finale led to a satisfying conclusion. A warmer acoustic would have helped knit together the elfin elements of the scherzo, warmed the upper reaches of the violin tone and unified the four attractive but very different-sounding instruments of the group.

With the Mimir Festival following soon after the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition, Melburnians can rightly take pride in their city’s investment in chamber music, maybe even claiming it as the chamber music capital of Australia. As the Melbourne Conservatorium moves to its new home in Southbank next year, it will be interesting to see how Mimir and other important musical initiatives play out. Hopefully one benefit will be a student performance space at Southbank with greater acoustic sensitivity for chamber music and maybe even a sympathetic makeover of Melba Hall which has played an important part in Melbourne’s musical history.