Affectionately known as “The Con”, this grand white National Trust building has hosted music studies at the University of Melbourne since 1891. Its walls hold many memories for the generations of music students and staff, who followed their dreams and careers in music, and those same walls remarkably still keep the sounds of the city’s trams and traffic out of the Inner Sanctum. Inside the walls the refurbished loved Melba Hall is a warm and comfortable venue for chamber music performances, with a well-established Monday Lunch Hour Series offering a treasure chest of programs for staff, students and the general public to enjoy. Little advertising is needed to guarantee a large and appreciative audience.
Proudly celebrated again this year is the 25th anniversary season of the Mimir Chamber Music Festival, a week of chamber music concerts and masterclasses by guest performers from the USA, who perform and lead specialist workshops with orchestral string students. Named after the Norse god of wisdom, Mimirwas founded in 1998 by Head of Strings, Dr Curt Thompson, a passionate educator and violinist with the highly acclaimed Firebird Trio.
SPIRE Quartet members – Nicholas Micelli and Sara Barbagallo (violins) Emma Amery (viola) and Fergus Ascot (cello), formed a beautifully synthesised team, projecting an air of care, skilful interaction and quite beautiful tonal blend. Janacek’s Quartet “Kreutzer Sonata” is a fascinating work with its many frequent, varied changes in timings and meters, the use of almost mediaeval cello drones and earthy folk melodies, and a raw, abrasive tonality asked for by the composer. “Sul ponticello” directions were regularly indicated, and the quartet effectively brought a rasping, sawing tone into the modal frame, particularly in the more dramatic second movement Adagio-Con Moto. Premiered in 1942, this work was inspired by Tolstoy’s novella of the same name, its themes depicting psychological drama, conflict and scenes of emotional outburst. Was it the warming, mellowing acoustic of Melba Hall, or the aim for absolute blend and hypnotic beauty that was very rewarding for the audience, but perhaps restricted the young players’ freedom and desire to amplify the tension, the passion and the melodrama in the score’s harsh tremolos, accelerations of tempo and extremes in tone colour? Janacek’s melancholic opening short rising phrase was beautifully portrayed in varied tempo changes through these four movements, and proved an eerie effect as it closed the work, but now as an inverted and descending pianissimo phrase by a single violin over sustained accompaniment.
Mimir Chamber Music Festivalis a great occasion for us to hear international visitors and masterclass leaders such as violist Joan DerHovsepian, and composer and pianist John Novacek, who joined Melbourne’s illustrious clarinettist David Griffiths for Max Bruch’s very beautiful and sensuous Pieces for Clarinet, Viola and Piano, Op 83. Bruch’s chamber trios are perfectly suited to Melba Hall’s acoustic and classy interior, with their abundance of lyrical melodies, romantic harmonies and a balance of passionate and elegant expression. No 2 Nachtgesang, Andante Con Moto was indeed very beautiful with sweeping passionate and flowing lines enhanced by the sight of DerHovsepian and Griffiths engaged in responsive physical movement expressing connection, enjoyment of the music, flattering conversation and flawless tone production. In his fine accompaniment, Novacek shifted from his warm pastel colours for the second piece chosen: Allegro vivace, ma non troppo, taking the trio into a contrasting world of high spirit, rich clarity of tone, bright colours and joyfulness. Griffiths particularly led the sprightly skips and dance movement, setting the style of a well-mannered yet very joyful physical frolic. Delightful to watch, and an uplifting way to start our week.
John Novacek has brought a wide range of styles to his music for chamber music performers, gaining much respect and popularity for pieces that take a nod to many jazz genres, as well as having created some hugely challenging virtuosic and vibrant solo piano works. It was exciting for the audience and Con students to hear this composer performing his works with Mimir Masterclass leaders, also from the USA, violinists Steven Copes and Gabriela Diaz. Novacek’s Three Rags are quirky, colourful and sophisticated works, always totally captivating listeners as one never quite knows what to expect next. Cockles is a zany work, full of a re-invigorated Dixieland character, with surprising modern lines, unexpected pauses and quirky colourations added from Copes’ skilled violin solo lines. Diaz partnered with Novacek for the contrasting smoother tones of 4th Street Drag, showing more slinky and sensual dance lines with martini in hand and an optimistic bluesy feel. Clarinettist David Griffith took the solo part for Full Stride Ahead, with both players joined on a merry-go-round of a modern ragtime piece in presto time with no brakes on. Animated celebratory voice interjections added punctuations and personality in true trad style. Inventive, creative and technically virtuosic, an acceleration of glissandos and dynamics did indeed take us more than a few full strides ahead of our usual experiences of ragtime music. A stimulating start to MIMIR’s week.
Julie McErlain reviewed the Mimir Chamber Music Festival Lunch Hour Concert, performed at Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, Melba Hall on August 29, 2022.