An overflow crowd filled the Watson Chamber Music Hall of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts to experience for themselves the Mozart “effect,” as seven faculty members from the School of Music performed three chamber works by Mozart from the year 1781, the year he left Salzburg and began as a free-lance musician in Vienna. Strangely enough, all three works chosen for the evening were in F major, a key used more in Mozart’s youth than his maturity.
Robert Rocco opened the celebration of Mozart’s 254th birthday (actually celebrated on the 27th of January) with a straight forward performance of the Sonata No.12 (of 18) in F, K. 332, a work written just after the famous “Turkish March” sonata. Rocco’s style is clean and forthright, keeping the style of the composer foremost and reproducing the characteristics of the period piano, with its relatively narrow range of dynamics, wherever possible. The most interesting moments in this performance occurred in the final movement, "Allegro assai," with its intriguing development and surprising coda.
Adding a violin creates a new atmosphere: whereas the piano sound dies out after being struck, the violin (as most wind and string instruments) is capable of sustaining a sound for a longer time, akin to singing. Thus, in the progression of the concert, the Sonata for Violin and Piano in F, K. 376, the 24th of about 3 dozen violin sonatas, introduced new possibilities of expressivity. Indeed, the warm and sweet tone of violinist Joseph Genualdi made this sonata a delight from start to finish. Matching his style was Eric Larsen, who took full advantage of today’s modern piano to complement the expression of his partner’s nuanced phrasing and dynamics. The second movement, Andante, was gorgeous in its gentle and subtle nuances and the Rondo (Allegretto grazioso) was as gracious as one could have wished. The musical bouquet was delivered as Larsen prepared the gentle adieu of the ending by playing his last entrance sotto voce (under one’s breath), using the left pedal (una corda).
After intermission we were treated to a delightful performance of Mozart’s well-known virtuosic quartet for oboe and strings, K. 370. Mozart wrote a number of these blended works, wherein the first violin of the usual string quartet is replaced by a flute, an oboe, a horn, or in the case of the sublime clarinet quintet, the clarinet is added to the full string quartet. Faculty members Kevin Lawrence, violin, Sheila Browne, viola, and Brooks Whitehouse, cello, were joined by Joseph Robinson who is rejoining the UNCSA faculty after an absence of 32 years during most of which he served as principal oboe of the New York Philharmonic.
Robinson is a disciple of the late Marcel Tabuteau, who for nearly half a century served as the principal oboe of the Philadelphia Orchestra and taught several generations of American oboists at the Curtis Institute before retiring to grow cane (the elusive and confounding essential material of oboe reeds and the bane of oboists’ existence) in the south of France. Some of his more famous students include Robinson, John de Lancie, John Mack, Marc Lifschey, Harold and Ralph Gomberg, and Robert Bloom, all of whom played major parts in the musical life of the best orchestras in the U.S.
Joe Robinson’s tone is elegant and refined and his control of dynamics phenomenal. He is a practitioner of “circular breathing” whereby a quick breath is inhaled through the nostrils without releasing the air pressure on the reed. (This is possible because, unlike most other wind instruments, the oboe requires little air, but at high pressure, to make the reed vibrate, leaving the oboist with too much air in his lungs and rarely needing to take more without releasing extra air first.) Not all oboists use circular breathing and Robinson is famous for his ability to spin very long phrases with apparent ease.
This was a delightful performance from the perky first theme to the final arpeggio ending on the highest “F” the oboe is capable. The mysterious Andante (second movement) in D minor uses the oboe as a sort of commentator, sometimes in descant, while the strings develop their harmonies with an assortment of dotted rhythms. Mr. Robinson made this difficult quartet sound easy, especially the vertiginous passage of superfast sixteenth notes over the calm 6/8 of the strings in the final Rondeau.
The audience was generous in its applause, and was treated to birthday fare in the lobby after the concert, furnished by the UNCSA Associates, a volunteer arm of the School of the Arts.