Mimir Chamber Music Festival has become a welcome fixture in Melbourne’s chamber music calendar, allowing visiting musicians to mentor students from the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music (MCM) as well as perform in their own right. Founded in the United States where it has enjoyed 22 seasons, this year sees Mimir celebrating its seventh Melbourne season and its first in the Conservatorium’s new home, the Ian Potter Southbank Centre adjacent to the Melbourne Recital Centre.

Brant Taylor, Jun Iwasaki, Stephen Rose, Curt Thompson and Joan DerHovsepian. Photo © Albert Comper

Hanson Dyer Hall (named after musical entrepreneur and philanthropist, Louise Hanson-Dyer) is a 400-seat auditorium that has a warm, appealing, timber-clad performing space. Designed by John Wardle Architects, there is a tip of the hat to mid-century modernist aesthetics. Seats are wide and comfortable with generous legroom between rows. There is also a small bar in the foyer.

The first evening concert of the festival continued Mimir’s trend of unusual programming. First up was Mahler’s Piano Quartet in A Minor, a student work of which only one completed movement survives. Cast in late Romantic style, the work contains virtually no hints about the composer’s future artistic directions, but Mahler develops his material effectively enough, even though there are a few rough harmonic transitions that might have attracted the pencil of his teachers. All four instruments are given some prominence along the way and there is a closing violin cadenza which was delivered with appropriate passion by Stephen Rose from The Cleveland Orchestra. Rose’s sympathetic collaborators, Joan DerHovsepian (viola), Brant Taylor (cello) and John Novacek (piano) gave plenty of light and shade to th score.

Visiting the venue for the first time, I took in the first half of the concert from the end of the seventh row, piano side. My first impression of the hall’s acoustic is that it resembles that of a typical recording studio: a fairly dry space in which individual elements of an ensemble can be clearly heard. In the Mahler I was struck by the immediacy of the strings, but concerned that the piano, when it arrived at forte or above, threatened to be too big for the space.

Prokofiev’s String Quartet No 2 in F Major, Op. 92 provided an opportunity to hear strings alone. Rose, DerHovsepian and Taylor were joined by MCM head of strings, Curt Thompson who took the role of leader. Dating from 1941, the quartet uses themes from the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic in the northern Caucasus Mountains, to which Prokofiev and other composers were evacuated during the German invasion of Soviet Russia that year. In customary style the composer marries his own wry humour to the folkloric material, producing a distinctive result.

In the first movement the players clearly enjoyed the music’s witty, angular modernisms, investing them with rhythmic and timbral bite. By contrast, the outer sections of the second movement are based on a Kabardinian love song, beautifully sung at first by DerHovsepian’s viola and embroidered with some ethereal figuration. The playful pizzicato of the central section, evoking the strumming of a traditional string instrument, was well realised. In the quasi-comic rush to the work’s abrupt end there was plenty of energy and good humour, aided by the hall’s direct projection of sound.

After interval, Rose, DerHovsepian and Taylor were joined by Novacek and leader Jun Iwasaki in a committed performance of Elgar’s Piano Quintet in A Minor, Op. 84. Written in the aftermath of World War I, the Quintet is a somewhat uneven conception. While the central Adagio has fervour and lyrical beauty, the outer movements, as one commentator puts it, have an improvised feel. It seems that Elgar poured all his best post-war emotion into his Cello Concerto of the same year, 1919.

Despite the unevenness of Elgar’s writing, the players brought plenty of spirited direction to the music. The noble ideas at the opening were treated atmospherically, even if Elgar’s lapses into salon-style sweetness threatened to upset the music’s emotional trajectory. Wonderfully expressive playing especially by DerHovsepian and Taylor allowed the slow movement to weave its musical spell, while the boisterous finale, with its elements of the Viennese waltz, was brought to solid and emphatic conclusion.

Sitting about three-quarters of the way back in the second half revealed a more generous acoustic picture in which the piano, even when loud, was well balanced with the rest of the ensemble, and there was also a greater sense of “bloom” generally. Even if the back half of the hall is not quite so luxuriously finished as the front half, it would seem to be, on this limited experience, the better place acoustically.

Although there is much to celebrate in this new chapter of the Mimir Festival and its new venue, I feel I must throw one brickbat at the MCM authorities. I was somewhat surprised and disturbed on entering the new Con to be serenaded by piped music. Not only was this “muzak” played before the concert, but it was also played during the interval. Surely the MCM is in the business of making people actually listen to music, rather than providing sense-numbing sonic wallpaper. This is simply inappropriate in any serious art music venue. The sound of musicians practising would be far more preferable.

Mimir Chamber Music Festival continues until September 2

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