The Mimir Chamber Music Festival ended on Friday evening in the same manner it started: a conservative program magnificently performed to a packed PepsiCo Hall on the Fort Worth campus of Texas Christian University. It was as good as you would hear anywhere played by anyone.
Two masterpieces dominated the program. Schumann's ever-popular Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 47 was the final work (and a more rousing season finale would be hard to imagine). Pianist José Feghali joined regulars from the second week of the festival, Curt Thompson and Jun Iwasaki, violins, Che-Yen Chen, viola, and Robert deMaine, cello. The same string quartet also gave Mendelssohn's String Quartet in E minor, Op. 44, No. 2 an energetic performance.
Mimir switches out most of the faculty for the second week. All five players on this concert, as well as those they replaced, are distinguished professionals. It is one of the glories of Mimir that the festival is able to attract such a high level of faculty. It is also why the hall is packed for each of the five faculty concerts. TCU deserves the gratitude of music lovers in the area. The Metroplex's sweltering summer is greatly enriched by TCU's presentation of Mimir and the Piano Texas Festival that preceded it.
Back to this concert.
All five players have stellar credentials. In addition to being the founder and executive director of the Mimir Chamber Music Festival, violinist Curt Thompson, is also Associate Professor of Violin and Director of Chamber Music Studies at TCU. The Tokyo born violinist Jun Iwasaki was appointed concertmaster of the Nashville Symphony in 2011. Taiwanese-American violist Che-Yen Chen holds the principal viola chair in the San Diego Symphony. American cellist Robert deMaine has served as principal cellist of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra since 2002. Pianist José Feghali won the Gold Medal at the Seventh Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and is now Artist-in-Residence and Professor of Piano at TCU.
Feghali and deMaine opened the program with a rarity, Pequena Suite (Little Suite) for Cello and Piano by Heitor Villa-Lobos. This is an early work, written before the Brazilian-infused style of the composer had jelled, or even really began. However, it is a lovely work with six movements that offer vivid contrasts. In the hands of deMaine and Feghali , Villan Lobos' long, sorrowful melodies, so perfect for the cello, sang with emotion. The alternate bright and playful sections were light on their feet. One especially intriguing movement made striking use of double stops, mostly low on the instrument where they are not so frequently used, and deMaine played them with faultless intonation. A sturdy finale ended with cute pizzicato that brought a ripple of laughter from the audience.
As it is with most of Mendelssohn's music, this quartet is a busy affair. There are lots of notes that move very quickly. Even the long beautiful melody of the slow movement has an active accompaniment. His music can often sound frantic in the hands of lesser performers. Not so here. This performance was absolutely clean, transparent and precise without sacrificing any of Mendelssohn's charm and grace. The 27-year-old composer was just arriving at the full height of his skill as a composer and this thoughtful and inspired performance revealed a composer that had arrived—a master of his craft at work.
The Schumann piano quintet is one of the staples of the repertoire. As such, it is a popular work with chamber music groups and audiences alike. It also shows up regularly on programs as well as for the chamber music part of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. In the case of this work, however, familiarly only breeds greater devotion. This performance was full of energy and was always in keeping with Schumann's compositional style. Tempi were quick but never rushed.
Balance was superb, but a big share of the credit for that goes to Feghali. The difficult piano part is prominent to the point of near domination in this work, which the composer wrote for his wife (one of the greatest pianist of the era). With Feghali, you never once lost sight of the fact that you were hearing a quintet and this was a remarkable accomplishment.
Each of the faculty concerts was a near sellout and the final one on Friday played to standing room and squeezed in folding chairs. This alone is an accomplishment in an era of disappointing houses for classical music concerts, especially something as esoteric as chamber music. Whatever the secret sauce is that Thompson pours over Mimir, it seems to be working. Members of the audience were already speculating about next summer.