String quintet earns ‘rock star status’ with unique sound, repertoire
Almost a decade ago, the five musicians who comprise Sybarite5 walked away from the standard string ensemble career, and they haven’t looked back.
Starting as a group of 10 or more at the Aspen Music Festival, the Sybarites – named after the Sybarites in Greek mythology who charmed their enemies by playing music – became Sybarite5, two violinists, a violist, a cellist and a double bass player. The final five Sybarites are Sami Merdinian and Sarah Whitney, violins; Angela Pickett, viola; Laura Metcalf, cello; and Louis Levitt, bass. Levitt says they are the first string quintet to include double bass.
“I asked myself,” Levitt says, “maybe there’s a reason why no one has ever done this. Maybe there’s a reason why there are no string quintets. Maybe it should just be quartets. Maybe Beethoven knew not to include a bass. I kind of asked myself that question for five years.”
Since its inception in 2009, Sybarite5 has been building a repertoire, crossing boundaries, discovering new sounds and essentially redefining the rules, says Sybarite5’s founding member Levitt. As a result, the string quintet has become known as risk takers with “original vision,” says Audiophile Audition magazine – rock stars in the chamber music world. In 2011, the quintet became the first group of its kind to win the Concert Artists Guild International Competition.
“Their rock star status … is well deserved,” says the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. “Their classically honed technique, mixed with grit and all out passionate attack, transfixes the audience, whether on Piotr Szewczyk’s ‘The Rebel’ or Radiohead’s ‘Weird Fishes.’ ”
On Friday, Feb. 22, at First Presbyterian Church, 105 S. Boone St., Johnson City, at 7:30 p.m., Sybarite5 will perform its Outliers program, which features a celebration of works written for the group, they say, “by our favorite composers and friends we’ve met traveling the world performing the music we love.” The evening’s program could include compositions by Piazolla, Mike Block, Jessica Meyer, Brandon Ridenour, Josef Suk, Armenian music or Radiohead, among other selections.
The quintet’s 2018 album “Outliers” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard classical music charts. That CD inspired Jazz CD reviewer Jonathan Woolf to say “Sybarite5 [in Outliers] is the group that puts the swing into the string quintet … Athleticism and rhythmic dynamism are pretty much constants throughout.”
Dynamic and daring, they don’t stop for intermission and don’t decide the actual program until shortly before the concert, announcing the pieces from the stage as they converse with the audience. “It leads to a really dynamic performance,” Levitt tells the Albuquerque Journal. “We want people to be listening and enjoying the music and not reading a dissertation on Dvořák.”
As they have crossed boundaries and defied traditional rules, it’s been a combination of scary and satisfying, says violinist Sarah Whitney. “One thing that I think is important to remember is that we grow the most from our challenges and the risks that we take,” she says in a DePauw 21CM interview. “From the repertoire we have chosen to how we dress on stage to how we present our concerts, we’re taking risks … and it is scary, and other times it feels really cool.”
The journey as a first-ever string quintet with bass has been challenging, as well. For starters, there was no repertoire for string quartet plus double bass. “We had to play concerts and we didn’t have any repertoire,” Levitt tells Contrabass Conversations. “It was kind of a huge problem but it was also a wonderful thing because it meant that we could do whatever we wanted … We would ask our friends who are composers, ‘Hey, do you have a piece for us?’ or ‘Hey, I heard you wrote this piece would you do a version for us?’
“One of the things we are not doing is taking a string quartet and adding a bass part. There was never a real desire to do anything like that.”
Sybarite5 glories in “genre-hopping,” Levitt says. “The only rule that we have is that we have to love the music we’re playing,” he says.
Violist Angela Pickett says “control of the repertoire and the music we present” is foundational to their musical motivation, while commissioning new works by their favorite composers is a freedom the quintet treasures, says violinist Sami Merdinian. Sybarite5 cellist Laura Metcalf calls it “bringing new sounds to the world.”
But it’s not all about the Sybarites. “We like to break down the boundary between the audience and the performers,” Whitney says. “[On stage] we talk between every piece. We allow the audience to get to know each of us individually.”
The quintet is also committed to education through residencies, master classes and workshops at schools and colleges of all levels. Sybarite5 maintains a residency at the cell, incubator for new works, in New York City, while having performed in more than 43 states, at venues including the Library of Congress, St. Paul’s Schubert Club, the Anchorage Concert Association and Sun Valley Center for the Arts, as well as concerts in their home of New York City, at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and the Apple Store.
“For a relatively young ensemble, Sybarite5 has an amazing résumé as well as repertoire,” says Anita DeAngelis, director of event-sponsor the Mary B. Martin School of the Arts at ETSU. “They are truly rock stars! I think it’s important for us to be able to look at classical music from different angles and perspectives, including new compositions and ways of thinking. I think Sybarite5 will be able to do that for us.”
“It’s also good to support ETSU’s growing strings program. Sybarite5 should be inspirational for our local music students and chamber music fans.”
For more about Sybarite5, visit www.sybarite5.org.
For information about ETSU’s Mary B. Martin School of the Arts or to purchase tickets, visit www.etsu.edu/martin or call 423-439-TKTS (8587). Tickets are $20 general admission, $15 for seniors 60+ and $5 for students of any age with ID. For disability accommodations, call the ETSU Office of Disability Services at 423-439-8346.