String quintet Sybarite5 mixes the modern and the classics


Submitted photo.

Kelsey Burritt | Staff Writer

Chautauquans who attend the Logan Chamber Music Series concert at 4 p.m. today in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall will be given a music program, but in small italic letters at the bottom, it will read, “Program subject to change.”

Sybarite5, which won the Concert Artists Guild Competition in 2011 — a first for a string quintet — rarely has a set order of music when entering a concert. Today, it will provide a program. Usually, however, the group does not provide one and is known to change pieces 30 seconds before beginning, compensating by posting programs with the pieces and composers on its website and Facebook page.

The string quintet — the first of its kind performing in the chamber music series this season — is comprised of violinists Sami Merdinian and Sarah Whitney, violist Angela Pickett, cellist Laura Metcalf and bassist Louis Levitt. The group has performed for the Dalai Lama and in venues including the Library of Congress and the Museum of Sex.

The name of the group comes from the ancient Greek city Sybaris. The people who lived there were called Sybarites, and were known for being wealthy hedonists who charmed their enemies with music.

The group’s members met while attending the Aspen Music Festival, where it has now become the Alumni Ensemble and has visited every summer since.

“We had a really fun time playing together, and we also found that with this group, we could be a little bit more flexible than with our other chamber groups,” Levitt said.

The structure of the group inherently demands that it be flexible. There is not much repertoire written for the string quintet, which the five have taken as an opportunity to commission arrangements and new works specifically for them.

“The possibilities are endless,” Whitney said. “We have been recently wrapping up a project we’ve been doing called the Radiohead Remixed project, where we’ve been commissioning composers to arrange Radiohead songs for us, and doing things a little bit out of the box.”

The quintet will — or might — play three songs from that project for the concert, “Packt Like Sardines in A Crushd Tin Box,” “Motion Picture Soundtrack” and “Paranoid Android,” all arranged by Paul Sanho Kim.

“We enjoy playing the classics as much as we enjoy playing Radiohead,” Levitt said. “For us, they fit very naturally. I don’t think we really change anything.”

The ensemble has also listed Dvořák, Piazzolla and modern composers Piotr Szewczyk and Dan Visconti on its program. Visconti will write the world’s first concerto for string quintet and orchestra, which Sybarite5 will premiere in 2013–2014.

The key instrument that pushes the group from a quartet to a quintet and is partly responsible for giving the group its unique edge is the string bass, played by Levitt.

“It adds another layer of sound; it comes out richer, fuller,” Merdinian said.

“For us, that’s kind of the divot,” Levitt said. “It allows us to cross into different genres of music really easily, because the bass is in almost every type of music — classical, bluegrass, hip-hop, rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, tango.”

Metcalf said because of the lack of standard repertoire written for string quintets, the group’s programming tends to be more eclectic than the average classical chamber group.

“We are lucky, because we play exactly what we want to play,” Metcalf said. “We can basically play whatever we feel resonates with us, and as a result, our enthusiasm for the work that we perform is portrayed to the audience.”

Another of its projects, called The Shuffle Effect, involves the group uploading repertoire to an iPod and passing the device around. Each member will press “shuffle,” and the group will play whatever next pops up on the iPod’s screen.

“The thing that I like about chamber music is that you have a real opportunity to make a creative or artistic statement,” Levitt said. “And you can also perform for people on a very intimate level, so a lot of performance venues are smaller, and I think that’s very attractive to us.”

The size of a chamber group also allows each of its members to make artistic decisions, a luxury not always given to orchestra members.

“We’re really lucky in that,” Metcalf said. “We’re just a small unit, and we go out and do what we believe in and what we want to do.”