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Wednesday, 02 June 2010 20:04

Rock star treatment a surprise as WCU quintet visits China

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Western Carolina University’s quintet in residence should consider letting the Travel Channel tag along before embarking on its next international tour.

After returning from China last month, the Smoky Mountain Brass Quintet can count 49 first-time foods tasted in 14 days of travel.

The long list includes some intriguing items like yam noodles, lotus root, dragon fruit, and glutinous rice. But other novelties would more likely make stomachs lurch: pig penis, sheep stomach, goose liver, shrimp eggs, turtle, and black fungus, to name a few.

Surpassing all that hands-down and nearly reaching legendary status, though, is the drunken shrimp. Eating that correctly involves biting the head off live shrimp drenched in baijiu, a clear Chinese liquor.

Not all five musicians ventured to experiment as a few feisty shrimp leaped from the bowl, one landing as far as the floor.

As for the verdict, a video capturing the gross-out moment (for Westerners) shows trombonist Dan Cherry declaring that it tasted ... pretty much like you’d expect raw shrimp to taste.

Trumpeter Brad Ulrich, who co-founded the quintet with fellow trumpet player David Ginn in 1993, was brave enough to try the dish first. Ulrich also picked up the skill of opening up a bottle of beer with chopsticks during the trip.

Even with all the bizarre foods, the quintet has come back from their tour raving about Chinese food — the authentic kind. Most meals took place around a large round table with a Lazy Susan in the middle piled with 14 or 15 different dishes. Everything was fresh, healthy and delicious.

“If you order fish [here], it’s been dead for a long time,” said Ulrich. “There, they take it out of an aquarium.”

Every place they visited offered something new, with each province specializing in a different dish.

“I can’t eat Chinese here anymore,” said Ulrich. “It’s not the same.”

Despite a grueling schedule with eight concerts on eight consecutive nights, the quintet obviously didn’t forget to set aside time for fun on the trip.

“We’re like family. It’s rare to have brass faculty that gets along as well as we do,” said Ulrich. “On these tours, it’s nonstop laughter, crying until our ribs hurt.”

The quintet is made up of those who have taught or are teaching at Western, including Travis Bennett on horn and Michael Schallock on tuba.

SMBQ is also a registered nonprofit that has helped raise money for the new library in Jackson County, for the local art council and for the Jackson County band program. It helped raise $14,500 for National Alzheimer’s Day in 2007.

On the China trip, the quintet was accompanied by Will Peebles, director of WCU’s School of Music, and China liaison Tang Cai.

Schallock said there was never a dull moment. “We just went with our eyes wide open from place to place and from person to person ... what we learned was enlightening and exciting.”

Cultural ambassadors

SMBQ’s international tours serve many purposes, but their chief function is to promote Western Carolina University to students and professors who may want to spend a semester or two in Cullowhee.

The idea for a tour came about after Ulrich was invited to perform in an international trumpet festival in St. Petersburg, Russia, about five years ago. Ulrich persuaded his bandmates to join him in performances abroad. It became a tradition, and the next international tour took them to the U.K.

As the quintet experiences the excitement (and exhaustion) of touring internationally, they promote cultural exchange.

SMBQ builds relationships with administrators, faculty and students at sister schools abroad. Those relationships help bring about an increase in the number of students who come to WCU or those who study abroad at sister schools in China.

Though many associate China with business and assume students who study abroad there are interested mostly in economics, Ulrich says art and culture are just as relevant.

“Music, art and dance — it’s all an extremely important part of the way they function and think,” said Ulrich. “You can’t neglect culture when you’re talking about economic development.”

Most of the concerts during the 14-day tour took place in packed halls at Western’s sister schools in China. Despite offering 300 to 500 seats, throngs of people still had to be turned away. SMBQ certainly didn’t spare any efforts to impress the crowd they had.

“We did not leave any performance without being soaked with sweat,” said Schallock. “We gave everything that we had.”

The five would often be swarmed by requests from concertgoers for photographs and autographs after the shows were through. Treated like rock stars, WCU’s resident brass quintet was surprised and amused to find their faces on cardboard cutouts or gigantic posters at the concert halls.

The quintet typically emphasizes pieces from Southern Appalachia and original compositions from WCU faculty, but they added a few Chinese songs to its repertoire, much to the audience’s approval.

“We couldn’t get through a piece, and they would be applauding wildly,” said Ulrich.

Ulrich says the Chinese viewed the visiting quintet’s performance of traditional folk songs as a sign of respect.

“We learned a lot about their culture doing it,” said Ulrich.

The quintet took the time to arrange the popular folk songs played on traditional Chinese instruments into pieces suitable for brass.

The musicians researched on YouTube and listened to CDs, but it wasn’t until they reached China that they got an authentic feel for the songs.

“We heard people singing and humming some of these tunes on the street,” said Schallock. “Folk players who would play traditional flutes in the park, we’d hear them playing these tunes.”

After visiting the Terracotta Warriors, the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and Chinese cities sometimes four times bigger than New York, SMBQ are once again back home in Western North Carolina.

Less than a week later, they were performing a Sunday concert in Clyde. Their eyes are already set on the next stop abroad: Germany.

Visit www.smbq.org for more information, photos and the infamous drunken shrimp video.

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