Mimir Chamber Music Festival founder Curt Thompson in interview

Fresh from celebrating its 20th consecutive year in Fort Worth, Texas, the Mimir Chamber Music Festival returns to its second home at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music from 28 August. The festival’s founder and executive director, violinist Curt Thompson, reflects on Mimir’s success and a life lived in music.  

By Paul Dalgarno

Curt, Mimir is 20 years old this year. What were your ambitions for the festival when it started? 

I had just turned 27 when we began preparations for the first Mimir. A classmate, pianist Johan Fröst, and I originally planned to start it in Sweden. But when I was offered a position at Texas Christian University (TCU) in Fort Worth, Texas, we decided to launch it there.

I don’t think the concept of 20 years of anything was comprehensible to me back then. We knew early on that Mimir was special, and the concerts were always first-rate, but knowing how to actually run a festival took many years. I had always hoped it would have an international footing, but I never imagined it would span two hemispheres.

Mimir 2017 artists, l-r, Brant Taylor, Jun Iwasaki, Stephen Rose, Curt Thompson, Joan DerHovsepian. Photo: Albert Comper.

How has it evolved?

For the first two years, Mimir Texas lasted only one week, but it expanded to two during its third season. We’ve tried to maintain our core personnel over the years, which has been a huge advantage for us when it comes to putting repertoire together quickly while maintaining a very high standard.

From the professional musicians’ perspective, it’s probably the most challenging, and rewarding, two weeks of their year. With rapid-fire concerts – five different programs in 12 days – and intense coaching responsibilities, the Mimir crew has developed an extremely efficient rehearsal schedule. It’s exhilarating to be in the thick of that.

The festival’s educational component has probably seen the most notable changes. Until five years ago, we selected 18 individual students for participation from across the US, Europe and Asia. Each was placed in two groups that received daily coaching.

Now we invite three pre-formed groups and present them in ticketed concerts. Each group is up and running the moment they land at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. So far, four Melbourne Conservatorium groups have gone to Texas, and each has had a wonderful and formative experience.

How does the Melbourne iteration of Mimir differ from the Texas version?

Mimir Texas takes place in the hot summertime, when most other music organisations are on holiday, so one noticeable difference in Melbourne, in addition to the winter temperature, is the amazing amount of activity going on in the city while the festival is running.

Melbourne has such a wonderful audience for chamber music, and we really love presenting performances for them. We have enjoyed an incredible reception from the Melbourne public and look forward to growing our audience each year.

Curt Thompson. Photo: Albert Comper.

The fact Mimir takes place during Melbourne’s academic year also enables us to reach many more students there than we do in Texas. Six student quartets enrolled in the MCM’s String Ensemble subject receive a number of intensive coaching sessions with guest artists.

The entire string cohort, the Chamber Music and Honours Performance Class subjects, and several secondary-school students from across Melbourne, also take part in the performances, masterclasses and demonstrations we present during the week.

Is some knowledge of chamber music necessary to enjoy the festival?

To be honest, some of our most enthusiastic supporters include those who had no prior familiarity with chamber music, and it’s a rare privilege to expose them to this art form. Over the years, they have learned to trust us to present standards by Beethoven and Brahms alongside cutting-edge new works by vibrant young composers.

I like to say that chamber music is “Classical” music’s equivalent to jazz. While the notes are prescribed in the score, the inflection, nuance, pace and swells can be quite improvised. If one player curves a line in a particular way, for example, the next player has to immediately react, carrying on the conversation, so to speak, as we go. It’s one of the most challenging, yet rewarding, experiences one can have in music.

I think the theatrical aspect of chamber music, as if it were an on-stage musical discussion at the dinner table, translates to our audience.

Which performers and performances are you excited about in this year’s program? 

Each concert offers a unique musical experience, so it’s difficult to pick out my favourite. I suppose highlights for me would be the Beethoven Op. 59, No. 1 string quartet in Concert One, the Vaughan Williams quintet featuring double bass in Concert Two, and Credo, a new work by Kevin Puts, in Concert Three. Each of the programs is carefully balanced to have a huge impact on audiences.

As for the performers, I love them all. I think one would be hard-pressed to find a better collection of performing artists in all of Melbourne during that week.

Mentorship is part of the Mimir program. Can you tell us a little about that? 

From the outset in 1998, mentorship has been a central focus of Mimir. The process of training to become a professional musician includes hours upon hours of work with teachers, in the practice room and in ensembles. Mimir offers a unique experience in which, in a quartet setting, MCM students and others from around the city are engaged in intensive instruction that opens their ears and minds to the possibilities in this genre.

The equal emphasis on our public performances and the training of young musicians really sets Mimir apart from other festivals. The guest artists understand what mentors have done to help them achieve some of the most coveted positions in the world, and I think Mimir offers a means of paying that back for future generations.

Can you describe how you feel playing a great piece of music, and how you feel watching someone else performing at an elite level?

In general, I approach great music with a true sense of humility. The fact that some of these works were written so long ago and can still elicit strong responses in an audience is amazing to me. To engage with other performers in such an intimate and exciting way is really indescribable.

In the case of Mimir, some of my favourite moments are the rare opportunities to sit in the audience when I’m not playing in a particular piece, and to hear what this incredible group of musicians can create. Knowing I had a small part in putting them together to share this experience with a hall full of people is truly a privilege.

What advice would you give someone just starting out on their journey towards a life in music or music research?

A life in music is an incredibly enriching, challenging and endless pursuit. One must have dedication, devotion, discipline, determination and, perhaps most of all, humility. Equipped with these qualities, a life in music can be the most enriching experience.

Curt Thompson. By Albert Comper.

What advice has held you in good stead throughout your career?

I learned early on that no matter how jagged or incongruent my life in music seemed to be at a given moment, with time and perspective I was able to look back on what then seemed to be a (nearly) perfectly straight line. My advice to anyone would be to listen to your instincts, take chances, never accept complacency in yourself, and just when you think it’s time to give up, commit to working harder.

How do you keep your passion for performance and teaching alive? 

The chance to share this incredible art form and the traditions that were passed down to us over so many centuries and generations is something I hold to dearly. The fact that I can travel anywhere in the world to recreate masterpieces by Bach, Brahms and Beethoven is a treasure that drives me every day of my life, and is something I owe to the nearly 500 years of violinists, luthiers, and composers who have gone before me.

What’s to gain from living a musical life?  

Those who choose a life in music – and pathways can be as varied as one’s imagination will allow – must be prepared for both unparalleled challenges and rewards. Plato, Aristotle and countless other great minds from antiquity realised the importance of music to individual development and to civilisation. We who dedicate our lives to music inherit the wealth of our forebears while carrying the torch for future generations.

Dr Curt Thompson is Associate Professor of Music (Violin) and Head of Strings at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.

Banner image: Curt Thompson. By Albert Comper.

The Mimir Chamber Music Festival is at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music from 28 August–3 September 2017. Full details