Fort Worth — The always-fascinating Mimir Chamber Music Festival took their first foray out of Texas Christian University’s PepsiCo Hall to perform in the auditorium of the Kimbell Art Museum’s Renzo Piano Pavilion. The change from the relatively enveloping, warm and informal egg shaped PepsiCo to the much colder glass and concrete formality of the pavilion required some adjustment. After all, here was the same informal kid-next-door Kurt Thompson giving us the same big welcoming grin.
The much larger hall was nearly sold out. PepsiCo is also relatively crowded for their concerts, but the pavilion has its allure. Like the building, the sound is not as warm and much less forgiving than the wood lined PepsiCo. With musicians of this caliber, Mimir regulars violinists Curt Thompson and Frank Huang, violist Kirsten Docter, cellist Brant Taylor and pianist John Novacek, this is not a huge problem, but you could sense an added layer of attention to intonation throughout the concert.
The main piece on the program, Gabriel Fauré’s Piano Quintet in C minor is an intonation challenge under the best of circumstances. This is a late work and Faure is exploring the new levels of chromaticism that swirled through the musical world at the time. Add to that his use of dissonance in one place and unisons in another as he passes through tonal centers, and you have lots of places where intonation could be off. Even a little but out of tune would be noticeable. Add to this the fact that the quintet is rarely played, so the likelihood of them being intimately familiar with its harmonic twists and turns is minimal.
Novacek impressed all over again with his innate ability to know what notes in the piano part are important and what acts as support to the string quartet. He frequently uses two dynamic levels for his two hands is one is prominent and the other accompaniment. While this sounds intuitive, it is rarely seen, even in top-level professionals. He also had a challenge of knowing just how loud to play in this new hall. A rehearsal doesn’t help much because it is empty and the audience changes everything. Despite this challenge, he was almost always at the perfect level. He really is one of the best collaborative pianists around.
All that said, they delivered a wonderful performance. The intonation was excellent and, in their hands, the complexity of the writing was as clear as it could be. After a short while, when players and audience alike relaxed, no longer concerned about surroundings, we all sat back and let Faure’s glorious music take us away.
You know that there is a living composer on the program when they are playing their own piece. In fact, Mimir has done a wonderful job of presenting the music of our time in this festival and they deserve a gold star for that effort. They also proved that audiences enjoy such pieces as much as they enjoy Haydn or Fauré.
Back to Novacek.
His 10-minute Ellery for cello and piano is minimalism, but not in the repeated arpeggios Phillip Glass manner nor the nervous energy of John Adams. No, this piece is minimal in that it has as much silence as music and only rarely is there more than one or two notes sounding at anytime. We were left to flounder as to what Novacek had in mind when it wrote this strange piece because there wasn’t a program note. Even a few words before the performance would have helped us get into the right mindset. As it was, most of us were bewildered.
It seemed like it kept trying to get going. A few notes tried to coalesce into a melody but constantly failed. Silence followed each attempt before it futility tried again. Each time, more notes were added but it never reached critical mass. It came across as a Zen meditation, not intended to ever finish. In an odd way, it brought Melville’s Billy Budd to mind. His fate was sealed by his stammer—only able to get out a word of phrase, inability to speak out a complete sentence in his moment of stress.
An accident on Interstate 20 caused me to miss Haydn’s C major Piano Trio (Hob. XV:27), which was most disappointing. Haydn’s C major Piano Trio (Hob. ,XV:27), I was told by nearly every one there that it was terrific (which made me feel even worse). With violinist Stephen Rose sitting in with Taylor and Novacek, it was easy to believe.