Some things about Texas Christian University's Mimir Chamber Music Festival, which is celebrating its 15th year this summer, might surprise even the most seasoned concertgoer.
You may know that the festival unites accomplished players and teachers with 20 young (age 16 and older, with most being college-age) performers who hope to polish their small-ensemble skills during an intense two-week series of rehearsals, master classes and performances.
But did you know that playing classical chamber music has things in common with playing poker?
Or that Jack Benny is making an indirect contribution to the success of this year's event?
We caught up with TCU music professor and violinist Curt Thompson, founder of the festival, and got him to take a break from preparations just long enough to chat about Mimir, which takes its name from the Norse god of wisdom.
Let's start with the basics. How do you define "chamber music"?
It's one [player] to a part. It's conductorless. It's small ensembles, running from two to eight or nine. In the case of a string quartet, it's like four people sitting at a table having a complicated discussion.
Why do you love chamber music so much?
It's so much fun. These pieces are such diamonds. And it is such a thrill when you can create something greater than the sum of its parts. It's got the best part of solo and ensemble playing in one. One minute you are playing as a soloist and the next you are supporting someone who is frequently a dear friend.
How does playing chamber music differ from playing in solo or orchestral settings?
Chamber music is something like classical music's equivalent of jazz. It is spontaneous. The notes are prescribed and the decisions have been made in rehearsals. But there is still a lot of wiggle room in the moment, and you're never quite sure how someone is going to turn a phrase. You have to know what a raised eyebrow means.
It's a little bit like a poker game. You have to know the tells of your colleagues. There is a great deal of freedom, but there is also a great challenge involved. It is more challenging, in many ways, than solo playing and orchestral playing because it is so immediate.
What are some new highlights of the festival that concertgoers can look forward to?
We're featuring French horn for the first time this summer. Mark Houghton, the principal horn player for the Fort Worth Symphony [Orchestra], will be playing the Brahms Horn Trio. That's something we've never done.
And I understand you have a celebrity violin making an appearance.
Nathan Cole [one of this summer's teacher-performers] is the first associate concertmaster of Los Angeles Philharmonic. When he got the job, they said, "It comes with a violin. Why don't you pick one." And he picked Jack Benny's Strad [Stradivarius]. So he will be playing that this summer.