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A sparse but appreciative Sunday afternoon audience responded with enthusiasm to the Pyramid Brass Quintet's enjoyable concert of mostly seasonal music at St. Matthias Episcopal Church. This group of fine instrumentalists, presented by the Asheville Chamber Players as part of its First Sunday at St. Matthias series, performed a group of light-hearted and popular Christmas numbers as well as a longer, more classical composition with a late-Romantic harmonic richness. Every piece revealed the skills of all five players: Bill Shank and Herb Wolff, trumpets; Don Wouchope, horn; Keith Poole, trombone; and Zach Taylor, tuba.
The players opened their concert with a jazzy, musically-clever version of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” arranged for brass quintet by Jack Gale, who knew the origins of the piece and the many types of songs and dances that are part of the musical and religious history we associate with New Orleans. The music began with a slow, bluesy trombone solo stating the well-known tune. In the following segments of the piece, each of which moved at a faster tempo than that of any music preceding it, the trumpets and then the horn picked up the melody with great brilliance and excitement. After sections that restated this famous tune as a cakewalk, a strut, a powerful gospel song, and a swinging Dixieland number, the music concluded with a stirring finale evoking the audience's enthusiastic response. This opening work revealed the talents and great skills of all the players and prepared listeners for the excellent performances they would hear in the remainder of the program.
The second piece, 19th-century composer Victor Ewald's Brass Quintet No. 2, Op. 6, was quite a musical departure from the boisterous “Saints.” Its dark harmonies and the melodies assigned to each instrument in the quintet were reminders of the compositional style so typical of the great orchestral works of the Romantic period. The first movement, Allegro Risoluto, introduced its lovely, rich thematic content in the lower voices of the instruments and then moved into a lighter dance-like section and a transition that heralded the return of the theme. The highly-expressive nature of this movement required all the instrumentalists to maintain a high economy of air in order to sustain pitch and the deliberate motion of the musical lines. The middle movement, Theme Andante, a group of six variations of differing tempos and rhythms, was a tour de force for everyone. The allegro variations presented an additional technical demand: that each member of the quintet has the ability to execute rapid passages with clarity and faultless intonation. The final movement, Allegro Vivace, lived up to its designation, calling for brilliant tone, rhythm, and sparkling, rapid notes from all players. This work allowed these excellent instrumentalists to reveal the skills and superior musicianship that made hearing this music a delight for the audience.
The final six numbers on this program were a pleasure to hear. All were well-beloved popular songs celebrating the joy of the Christmas season, and many members of the audience sang along as the quintet played with polish, beautiful intonation, and impeccable taste.