Wednesday’s Upbeat! concert at Bowdoin’s Studzinski Recital Hall featured the East Coast premiere of Claude Baker’s String Quartet No. 2 (“Capriccio”), with the composer in the audience, plus works by Schumann, Saint-Saens and Chopin. The entire evening was surprisingly light-hearted.

It began with Camille Saint-Saens’ Sonata in G Major (Op. 168) for that clown of the orchestra, the bassoon. Saint-Saens’ writing, in the last composition of his life, is a melodic and straightforward exploration of the instrument’s capabilities, including its wonderfully deep bass notes. Still, as rendered by Sue Heineman, bassoon, and Tao Lin, piano, it couldn’t help but bring a smile to your lips.

The same was true of Claude Baker’s second quartet, a work of arch mystification consisting of a set of variations on Paganini’s 24th Caprice, which has fascinated musicians since it was written. It is not until one is well into the set that the joke is revealed, with parodies of famous variations by Rachmaninoff, Brahms and Lutoslavski, among others identified in the program only by their initials.

The quartet, which has as many technical difficulties as Paganini’s original, was well played by David Coucheron and Justyna Jara, violin, Celia Hatton on violo, and Michael Midlarsky, cello. Coucheron’s cadenza, Variation 13, would have challenged whatever devil inspired Paganini.

I enjoyed Chopin’s Piano Trio in G. Minor (Op. 8) more than the late cello sonata heard earlier this month at the Bowdoin International Music Festival’s Monday Sonata concert. The trio does not take itself at all seriously, leaves plenty of room for the piano to excel without constraint, and benefits from the composer’s youthful work on his piano concertos, which it resembles.

In the reading by Barry Snyder, piano, Krzysztof Wegrzyn, violin, and Rosemary Elliott, cello, the strings seemed to be enjoying their own world while Chopin’s piano did its virtuosic thing. (Somebody should open the Paderewski Edition scores under a steamroller before attempting to use them at the piano.)

The evening ended with Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes (Op. 13), played by pianist Peter Basquin. This is another set of surprisingly graceful and brilliant variations – surprising because the original theme, by Baron von Fricken, is a bit “gloomy,” to use Schumann’s words.

The “brilliantly fast” finale bears no relation to the original theme, but fits the atmosphere quite well.

Its thread appeared to have been lost somewhere in the middle of the pyrotechnics, but I am not familiar enough with the piece to know whether it was the fault of the performer or the composer.

Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at:

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