Violinist Christina Mok is Concertmaster of the Monterey Symphony; and, in that capacity, she has been working with her colleagues to offer a series of chamber music recitals performed by the “Monterey Symphony Chamber Players.” This afternoon at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral, Mok gave a Noontime Concerts™ recital with three of those colleagues, violist Dave Allcott, cellist Nancy Kim, and bassoonist Douglas Brown. That is not your usual combination for chamber music; but the program proved to be an engaging (and frequently witty) one.
The entire group performed only one selection, the last on the program. This was the first (in C major) of three quartets for bassoon and string trio composed by François Devienne and published around 1800 as his Opus 73. Born in 1759, Devienne was about three years Mozart’s junior; and, given his background, there is a good chance that he was exposed to Mozart’s music when the latter came to Paris in search of a position. Devienne was somewhat more successful, but much later in life. When the Conservatoire de Paris was founded in 1795, he was appointed both administrator and flute professor.
Most of his 300-odd instrumental works are for wind instruments; and, while his own instrument was the flute, he certainly had a keen sense of the sorts of virtuoso demands that could be made of the bassoon. As a result the Opus 73 quartet performed this afternoon not only sounded like a concerto for bassoon and very small orchestra but also sounded as if Devienne had some knowledge of the sorts of piano concertos Mozart had brought with him during his visit to Paris. In this intimate setting Brown rose to all of the quartet’s technical challenges, frequently using the sonorous qualities of his instrument to spice up his virtuosity with more than a little wit. Devienne’s music turned out to be an inspired programming choice, and we should hope that other ensembles follow the lead established by Brown and Mok.
The two of them also opened the program with a two-movement duo by Niccolò Paganini. As one might guess, in this composition the violin dominated the virtuosic turns. Indeed, as is so often the case in his music, structure seemed to be little more than a sparse armature supporting no end of opportunities for Paganini to show off his talents. The bassoon serves little purpose other than to remind the listener where the bass line is supposed to be. Brown seemed to be a good support in taking on this responsibility, while Mok did a first-rate job of rising to Paganini’s many technical challenges.
Between these two selections, Mok, Allcott, and Kim played a string trio that was actually an arrangement by publisher Johann André (issued in 1790) of a piano sonata in D major by Joseph Haydn (Hoboken XVI/42). As was recently observed, the source was one of three sonatas that Haydn dedicated to the Princess Marie Hermenegild Esterházy, wife of Nikolaus II. The sonata is a late work, written after Nikolaus invited Haydn to return to Eszterháza after his father, Prince Anton, had disbanded the musical organization that Haydn had created there.
As might be guessed, Haydn’s capacity for wit was as great as Devienne’s. In many respects it was also more refined. The second Vivace assai movement goes by like a bolt of lightning. On the other hand, the opening Andante con espressione, which is basically a study in variation, jolts the ear in the opening measures with full-stop silences. This sonata was probably composed between 1782 and 1784, prior to Ludwig van Beethoven’s first encounter with Haydn; so it may well have been one of the works that inspired Beethoven to cultivate his own rhetoric of silence. Mok, Allcott, and Kim clearly appreciated that the source for their trio was no ordinary piano sonata; and, as a result, their reading convinced the listener that André’s arrangement was no ordinary string trio.