It’s perfectly apt that Curt Thompson, founder and executive director of the Mimir Chamber Music Festival, should be talking so animatedly — from Melbourne, Australia, his new permanent home — about the 16-year-old Fort Worth festival’s new global reach.
Not long after the conclusion of this year’s Mimir fest, which starts Monday and runs through July 7 at TCU, all its players will head for Australia and a residency at the University of Melbourne’s music conservatory. Down Under, Thompson has organized a series of teaching seminars in addition to concerts, where the Mimir ensemble is likely to perform much of the same material to be played in Fort Worth.
“Melbourne is a fantastic chamber music town,” says Thompson, who has been in Australia for nearly a year as head of the strings department at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music/Victorian College of the Arts. “We at Mimir are so excited to become part of this landscape, taking the music to the Southern Hemisphere. Mimir is about to be known on two continents.”
As for this year’s Mimir fest, one might assume that because it starts only weeks after the conclusion of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, it would have a tough time convincing local patrons to seek out yet another intense dose of classical music. But in fact, Thompson believes the Cliburn stokes Mimir’s popularity.
“If anything, the Cliburn actually energizes people to come to our concerts,” Thompson says. “Our patrons are already pumped up by the chamber music they’ve just heard at the Cliburn.”
One surface change to this year’s Mimir is that its seven-day format is five days shorter than its traditional festival.
“It’s for logistical reasons, as we had a perfect storm of scheduling conflicts,” explains Thompson.
The performer lineup, constantly shuffled into duos, trios, quartets and quintets, is made up of veterans of the annual festival: Thompson, Frank Huang and Jun Iwasaki on violin; Kirsten Docter, viola; Brant Taylor, cello; and John Novacek, piano.
“We’ve tried to keep the same personnel for every summer — and we’ve gotten it down to a science,” says Thompson. “Mimir really runs like a Swiss watch. We are so familiar with each other that when we finally sit down together, it is not like sitting down next to a stranger. We’re not some ragtag group of people thrown together but, rather, an ensemble that returns to play with one another.”
Old works, young players
This year’s Mimir program will run the gamut from traditional string quartet compositions by, among others, Beethoven, Prokofiev, Schubert and Dvorak, to contemporary works such as Hungarian Folk Songs by Dana Wilson and Tales From Chelm by Paul Schoenfeld, the latter calling for the rare use of a narrator, in this case, TCU’s Richard Estes.
“If there is a common theme throughout this year’s repertory, it would have to be folk songs or folk-derived compositions,” says Thompson.
Two more distinctions stand out in this year’s festival. By playing Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 4, Op. 18, the Mimir will have completed the composer’s monumental 16-string-quartet cycle.
“That’s a big deal that we’re quite proud of, especially for an ensemble that gets together just two weeks a year,” Thompson says.
Also different from festivals past is that rather than bringing in as many as 18 young artists to form their own ensembles for a few concerts, the Mimir has recruited two pre-formed young artist quartets to present fully ticketed performances.
They are Axiom (formed at Rice University’s music school) and Vivant, both offering two full-length concerts and receiving three-hour daily coaching sessions from Mimir players.
“This is the first festival where we’ve brought in two pre-formed groups of young artists to our understudy program and given them full billing for their own performances,” says Thompson. “To work with young players who already know each other, have a group sound and have performed with each other is highly rewarding.”
North to south
But back to that Australia trip.
Only six weeks after the final string notes fade from the Fort Worth Mimir, five of the festival’s performers will board a plane bound for Australia to launch Mimir’s first residency outside the United States.
Indeed, Thompson hints that several Fort Worth audience members may make the trip to continue their Mimir experience in Australia. And next year, Thompson hints, Mimir may explore putting together travel deals to secure the best rates for patrons looking to follow their favorite string ensemble Down Under.
“With all that is going on here and abroad, I feel we have earned the reputation of being the best chamber music festival in the entire Southwest,” says Thompson. “And, personally, even if I’ve made a big move to the other side of the planet, Mimir is as important to me as anything I can think of. I sincerely hope our audience understands that Mimir itself is in Fort Worth to stay and that we are truly growing.”