In a southwestern nook of our mountains, a great chamber music festival is marking its 25th anniversary with some truly exceptional fare. On July 17, in the parish hall of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd  in Cashiers, participants in the Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival gave the second of two performances of a truly remarkable program. It was remarkable on several levels, although one can imagine purists snorting at some of the selections. Never mind! The artists were exceptional and the playing was often, to use a somewhat overworked term, out of this world.

For openers, this was a crew with a difference – a difference that suggested the Marlboro Festival in a very real sense, because seasoned professionals worked alongside considerably younger – but nonetheless comparably skilled – artists. Here, the master players, which is to say, the ones with the greatest name recognition, were Sara Sant’Ambrogio, distinguished cellist of the Eroica Trio, William Preucil, Concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra, and Miles Hoffman, violist and Artistic Director of the American Chamber Players, who played in the second half of the program. The concert was introduced by pianist and HCCMF Artistic Director William Ransom, whose relaxed stage manner and personal charm place him in the same stratosphere as the inimitable Charles Wadsworth, also a pianist, who has for years hosted chamber music at Charleston (and elsewhere). Rounding out the personnel roster were three members of the Vega String Quartet, who joined Preucil, Hoffman, and Sant’Ambrogio for the evening’s grand finale, the Sextet of Antonin Dvorák.

Things got underway with passion and brio as Sant’Ambrogio and Ransom essayed Brahms’ Sonata in e minor, Op. 38. This much-loved work is often heard, but never before in this listener’s experience has the music seemed so vibrantly alive, so all encompassing, so compelling. The cellist seemed totally at one with the score, bringing the notes to new life again and again. And Ransom, despite a smallish Steinway that seemed at times a bit shallow, met Sant’Ambrogio note for note, measure for measure. It was hardly surprising when the artists were rewarded with a standing ovation – not the evening’s last – at the conclusion of the piece.

Next, Preucil trotted out five old chestnuts, forming a group of pieces some of us (surely) had not heard for decades or more. They’re all representatives of what might be called encore repertory, but the fact is that these things aren’t heard all that often anymore outside of violin studios, so each was a mini-revelation in its own right. The lineup encompassed a Romance (“Desespoir”) by Henri Vieuxtemps, Fritz Kreisler’s Andantino and Tempo di Minuetto, Franz von Vecsey’s “Valse triste,” and Max Bruch’s Adagio appassionato, Op. 57. Preucil played these with great expressiveness in ways that suggested the great masters of the past, and the alternating fireworks and sentiment (which never quite got mired in sentimentality) made for a stunning display of violinistic prowess during which he nonetheless retained sight of the pieces’ genuine musical values. Again, too, Ransom was a superb artistic co-equal – and some of the accompaniments were as demanding as the fiddling. The substantial audience – there were only a few empty seats – leaped to its collective feet to applaud its delight and approval.

For the concert’s crowning work, Preucil and Sant’Ambrogio were joined by Hoffman and three Vega members: violinist Jessica Shuang Wu, violist Yinzi Kong, and cellist Guang Wang. For reasons attributable to the vagaries of chamber music program making, none of the artists had publicly played Dvorák’s Sextet in A, Op. 48, before this pair of concerts. It is one of the gems of the repertoire but, as Hoffman explained in his informative introduction, it exists somewhat on the fringes of popularity. That’s a pity, for it’s a fine and appealing score, and these artists threw themselves into it, the younger players more than holding their own as, collectively, the ensemble took everyone within earshot on a wonderful and heartwarming journey. Perhaps needless to say, it was a special and rare treat to hear artists customarily associated with their “home” ensembles – the Eroica Trio, Cleveland Orchestra, and American Chamber Players – in concert with other musicians. The players watched each other like hawks, all the while reveling in the music, and the crowd loved it and seemed reluctant to permit the artists to leave.

The Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival continues through August 6. It’s one of the great gems of the Tar Heel state, and it’s close enough to Brevard that music lovers can easily sample music in all three locations during a short vacation. For the HCCMF’s schedule, click here.