Half a night’s excellence


Melba Hall, University of Melbourne

Wednesday August 31, 2016

jun iwasaki

                                                                                     Jun Iwasaki

Back for its fourth Melbourne season, the Mimir week of performance and teaching has again brought to the University of Melbourne some gifted performers from the ranks of American orchestras.   The festival’s three major recitals feature four visitors and three local musicians: Curt Thompson, who is the festival’s director and the university’s head of strings, alongside pianists Kristian Chong and Benjamin Martin who are taking part in a piano quartet each.

My limited experience of the Mimir events has been positive,  all the more so when you consider how ad hoc some of the quartet personnel arrangements have to be.   For this year’s work, Thompson brought together Stephen Rose, principal second violin with the Cleveland Orchestra;  Jun Iwasaki, concertmaster of the Nashville Symphony,  Joan DerHovsepian, associate principal viola of the Houston Symphony Orchestra,  and Brant Taylor, cellist at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  Naturally enough, these artists have more in their resumes than simply a chain of orchestral positions: all are educators and have spread their talents widely, albeit for most of the time across their home country.

Wednesday’s opening gambit was Mozart K. 421 in D minor, one of the Haydn set and here given a gem of a performance with a collegial warmth that showed no signs of hasty accommodation or stress in enunciation.  In this instance, Rose took the first violin desk and revealed a rare sensibility in welding his line into the work’s fabric, departing from the general operating principle that the top line is always dominant even when its content is subsidiary.

Between Rose and his second, Jun Iwasaki, an exemplary interdependence obtained throughout this score but the reading reached its finest point at a fairly transparent stage: the last 8 bars of the third movement’s trio where both Rose and DerHovsepian executed a splendidly shaped doubling, almost bowing over the fingerboard – combining the brisk rhythmic snap of this segment with a bucolic absence of vibrato.   Just as impressive an interpretative point came in the final Piu allegro of the last movement variations-set with a delivery of brilliant lightness, the groups of rapid-fire semiquaver triplets mirrored with fine musicianship across all four lines.

The violinists changed positions for Respighi’s No. 3 in D Major of 1907, for which the first desk sets a more determined pace and enjoys more exposure.   Iwasaki made a more forthright-speaking leader than Rose, but that is his natural role in this full-blown late Romantic piece.   Also a challenging presence was DerHovsepian, whose viola made itself felt in exposed passages, even though her instrument faced towards Melba Hall’s back wall.   Taylor seemed the odd-one-out in this work, but it was hard to tell why.  His production occasionally proved suspect, particularly at the upper end of the compass Respighi requires, but the timbral differentiation could just as easily have been due to a lack of sympathy with the score’s idiom.   Still, the group realized to the full the work’s mercurial changes during the inner movements, draining as much drama as possible from the last Lento doloroso variation in the second movement with its unexpectedly fierce conclusion.

Benjamin Martin took on keyboard duty for Faure’s G minor Quartet, a hard ask of any group and a wearing odyssey for Iwasaki,  DerHovsepian and Taylor as well as the pianist. What emerged from this delineation was the inner complexity of the two outer movements but the quirky flightiness of the Allegro molto and the surging string arcs that eventually permeate the Adagio‘s central pages went missing.   In fact, the performance seemed to be an uneasy one as a whole, Taylor unsure of gelling with Martin’s attack at several points, although Iwasaki and DerHovsepian seemed happy enough.   But the lengthy, solidly argued finale was hard driving for all involved and, where you might have welcomed some pulling-back in dynamic and force of delivery, the effect was more of gritty determination.

On Friday at 7:30 pm, Thompson replaces Rose for US composer Mason BatesFrom Amber Frozen, but the visitors are together again in Beethoven’s G Major from the Op. 18 set, and Rose does violin duty in the Brahms A Major Piano Quartet with Kristian Chong at the keyboard.   The final recital at 3 pm on Sunday finds Thompson and Iwasaki exchanging chairs for Turina’s La Oracion del Torero and Debussy in G minor, the guests reforming for the festival’s finale: Schubert’s Death and the Maiden.