Fort Worth — The final concert of the 2017 Mimir Chamber Music Festival combined exemplary playing with a program of the new, the rare, and the beloved.
The new was Kevin Puts’ Credo, made up of four movements performed without pause and scored for a traditional string quartet. The first of these and the cleverest was “The Violin Guru of Katonah,” an homage to a New York luthier. The movement interweaves tuning sounds with excerpts from the violin repertoire—the sort of thing you’ll hear in any violin shop, as players try out instruments or ask the luthier to make minute adjustments to get exactly the sound they want from their beloved violin. But the core of the piece is overtly political—a message of solace in the face of a society plagued by violence, addiction, war, and an ineffectual government.
Whether instrumental music can make any kind of useful political statement is an open question—after all, it is Puts’ program notes that enable us to contextualize the sounds we’re hearing. Still, the message of finding peace in urban engineering (the second movement, “Infrastructure,”) or a glimpse of a mother dancing with her child (movement three, “Intermezzo: Learning to Dance”) is reflected in the alternating frenetic and peaceful atmosphere of the music. The final movement, “Credo,” with its open fifths, is reminiscent of a tuning orchestra, with a melody crafted by just one instrument—viola, cello, then viola again—spinning over the top.
Nashville Symphony Concertmaster Jun Iwasaki brought a radiant sound to the first violin parts, and he was deftly supported by Curt Thompson on second violin. Violist Kirsten Docter has a big, full, delicious sound that is simply marvelous. Cellist Brant Taylor seemed astonishingly energetic for someone who played on five different chamber performances in just over a week’s span, and he brought his glowing musicality to the entire program.
Also on the program, for string quartet, was Antonín Dvořák’s Quartet in G Major, Op. 106—the beloved. This quartet, written in the last decade of the composer’s life, served as a delightful end to this year’s festival. Playing was tight and focused, with Iwasaki in particular capable of impressive brilliance. This is Dvořák at his most cheerful and cleverest, and the Mimir players brought appropriate sunshiny happiness, as well as formidable technique, to the performance.
The rarity on the program was Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Quintet in C minor, for violin, viola, cello, bass, and piano. This unusual instrumentation might be part of the reason for this piece being played all too seldom. Whatever the reason, though, it’s wonderful music, and I was grateful to hear it. Thompson, Iwasaki, and Taylor were joined for the performance by pianist John Novacek and Dallas Symphony Principal Bass Nicolas Tsolainos. Novacek is an absolute wonder as a collaborative pianist, with a nuanced sense of foreground, middle ground, and background. Tsolainos has a robust, appealing sound and is an agile player. Though pitch was not always rigorous, overall this was an engaging performance.
The concert’s encore occurred before intermission—John Novacek, along with Iwasaki, Taylor, and Tsolainos, romped through one of Novacek’s own rags, “Intoxication.” The string players scampered to keep up through this high-speed, whiz-bang thrill ride of a piece: a fun bonus to a worthwhile evening.