Five distinguished members of Western Carolina‘s music faculty who comprise the Smoky Mountain Brass Quintet appeared in concert at the Brevard Davidson River Presbyterian Church.

Their engaging and eclectic program, which ranged from the late Renaissance to contemporary jazz favorites, included several pieces with ties to the local area. Founded in 1993, the ensemble is directed by Brad Ulrich, who plays first trumpet. Other members are David Ginn, trumpet, Travis Bennett, French horn, Zsolt Szabo, trombone, and Michael Schallock, tuba.

It was readily apparent that all the players are seasoned professionals. In addition to their busy teaching schedules, they are active as recitalists, orchestral players, and clinicians. The ensemble has traveled widely, both within the United States and abroad, and has commissioned new works for brass quintet.

The program opened with “Hodie,” a short polychoral piece by Giovanni Gabrieli, arranged for brass quintet and organ by Albert Zabel. The acoustics of the church seemed ideal for the echoing style of this work, with short phrases exchanged between the organ (played by Charlie Steele) and brass, and with tutti sections that filled the space without overwhelming it. Next came the anchoring work for this half of the concert, Victor Ewald’s Quintet No. 3, in four movements. Ewald (1860-1935), a Russian civic engineer, was also a cellist and a brass player who studied composition at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. His four brass quintets, composed between 1888 and 1912, are at the heart of the brass repertory. The demands of these quintets, unprecedented for their time, still exact a high cost from each player, as they are lengthy and technically unrelenting.

The opening movement, Allegro Moderato, sounded very much like string quartet writing, with its fluid, “conversational” exchanges of melodies and clearly delineated form. The high degree of technical proficiency of each member made this challenging music seem easy and fun to play. The Intermezzo is a lovely lyrical movement with arching phrases here beautifully matched in the first trumpet and trombone, and with a delightful faster middle section which echoed with horn call figures before the return to the tranquil opening music. The third movement, Andante, is also lyrical, but extroverted in its display of emotion, displays which occasionally sounded more like outbursts. The concluding Vivo is a festive, mainly chordal movement with some melodic sections played against comical off-beats in the accompanying instruments.

After intermission came the anchoring work of the second half, Four Hymn Tune Settings by Paul Basler. Basler was a professor at Western Carolina University before moving in 1993 to the University of Florida, where he teaches horn and composition. His hymn tunes in his suite conjure up images of Appalachian tent revivals and shape-note singing with imaginative treatments of “Abide with Me,” “Amazing Grace,” “Were You There,” and “Brethren, We Have Met To Worship.” Each movement contained its unique challenges, many of them rhythmic, which the ensemble executed flawlessly.

The other piece rooted in local culture was a world premiere of Robert Kehrberg‘s “Corn Song and Dance.” Kehrberg also has deep ties to Western Carolina University, as its founding Dean of the College of Fine and Performing Arts and current faculty member specializing in brass composition. “Corn Song and Dance” is part of a trilogy of works based on Cherokee culture. Its melodic material is derived from an actual Cherokee dance done during the planting of corn. This composition was one of the highlights of the evening. The piece unfolded in melodic fragments which rippled at times in close imitation throughout the ensemble, like echoes across a vast space. Other lengthy moments of repose suggested the timelessness of this ancient culture. The ensemble handled the complex spacing of events in a masterful way, resulting in a mesmerizing and unforgettable performance of this wonderful piece.

Each half of the concert ended with a jazz standard. We heard Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” arranged by Jeff Jarvis, and “St. Louis Blues” by W.C. Handy, arranged by Bill Holcombe, the latter played standing with David Ginn on the lead trumpet. Each showcased yet another facet of this fine ensemble’s interpretive skills.