Penn State College of Arts and Architecture
Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State

Sybarite5 expands limited string quintet repertoire with experimental arrangements and composer commissions

By Heather Longley

Most string ensembles are content to perfect their own renditions of the masters’ compositions of multi centuries past. But members of New York City-based quintet Sybarite5 choose instead to challenge their instruments and themselves in a search for new sounds, whether through re-creating electronic music or giving voice to new composers’ works.

The quintet's overall mission, founder and bassist Louis Levitt says, is to “break down as many as possible barriers as we can when it comes to classical music.”

Sybarite5 will prove that anyone can fall in love with a string ensemble with a unique performance, featuring songs by Radiohead and works written specifically for the quintet, at 7:30 p.m. Friday, January 22, in Schwab Auditorium.

The year 2011 was kind to the group. The young ensemble made history by becoming the first quintet to win the Concert Artists Guild Victor Elmaleh Competition, an outcome Levitt likely was particularly pleased with.

“It was the first time in its sixty-year history that [an ensemble featuring] double bass won the competition, so I think it was a big deal for that reason,” he says.

The competition also served to lead the musicians—Levitt, violinists Sarah Whitney and Sami Merdinian, cellist Laura Metcalf, and violist Angela Pickett—down a new path. From the event, the quintet also took home the Sylvia Ann Hewlett Adventurous Artist Prize.

Duluth News Tribune writer Lawrance Bernabo recently opined that the quintet is the new quartet. But Levitt admits, because there is no formal quintet setting, the number of works for a five-person classical string ensemble—especially one featuring a bass—is limited.

The Concert Artists Guild award would help Sybarite5 grow its repertoire. In addition to already performing the few available string quintets by classic composers, including Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Antonìn Dvorak, and Edward Elgar, the only rule Sybarite5 followed is that the musicians have to love the music.

“And we all love different types of music,” Levitt says.

The Hewlett award would be used in part to produce Everything in its Right Place, a CD of music by seminal-yet-experimental British rock band Radiohead, as arranged by Paul Sanho Kim.

Mastering the intricacies of Radiohead’s layered and electronic soundscapes created more opportunities for the group.

“I think that if there was any door we opened, it was just the idea that, you know, what else can we do?”

Sybarite5 bassist Louis Levitt

“I think that if there was any door we opened, it was just the idea that, you know, what else can we do?” Levitt says.

The quintet rose to the challenges of performing arrangements of the British band’s complex music, but the musicians also used the award to champion the works of contemporary composers.

Sybarite5’s recent playlists highlight works by songwriters of today, including Daniel Bernard Roumain, Piotr Szewczyk, Jessica Meyer, Dan Visconti, Shawn Conley, and Eric Byers. In a November concert, the quintet performed the world premiere of Marc Mellits’ “Groove Machine, and in August, it premiered Visconti’s “Black Bend.” Also in August, the group chose Conley’s “Yann’s Flight” for its Ravinia debut.

The quintet’s project list is dedicated to celebrating new works and composer engagement. Sybarite5 engages audiences in experiments such as The Shuffle Effect (performing live whatever the musicians’ iPod demands) and New Music Idol (showcasing college students’ new works in a contest format). Look Back/Move Forward features a program of six movements penned by six composers in a master suite. And two upcoming initiatives—Coming Together and Outliers—challenge and celebrate complementing sounds and roots styles among established and emerging composers.

And then there’s Beatbox. In March, the musicians premiered Visconti’s piece written for the string quintet that highlights not only each musician’s solo chops but also the composer’s deftness at capturing many facets of the musical landscape with an improvisational spirit.

“There are a lot of people who really love new music, and some like to pair new music with an older piece to present it in relief."

composer Dan Visconti

In a 2014 interview with TED Blog author Karen Eng, Visconti explains why an ensemble would commission musical works: “There are a lot of people who really love new music, and some like to pair new music with an older piece to present it in relief,” he says. “A new piece of music can be a way to relate it to the past.”

But the past he refers to in the case of Beatbox might only be a couple of decades—not centuries—old. In Duluth News Tribune writer Bernabo’s review of the Sybarite5 Beatbox performance, he reveals that the quintet played excerpts “where Visconti musically recreates the sounds of a DJ scratching a record and a cassette player in reverse.”

Levitt says his quintet also writes its own arrangements, including for the Radiohead song “No Surprises,” which was a last-minute addition to the Everything disc.

Regardless of composer, Levitt adds, Sybarite5’s diverse programming brings audiences together and helps to introduce works to every age demographic, fulfilling one aspect of the quintet’s mission of making the string ensemble experience more accessible.

“It’s interesting,” he says. “There’s a lot of people that are drawn to us to hear the rock-and-roll-type stuff that might be younger. And what usually happens with those people is that they enjoy that, but in the concert they’re introduced to new music that they’ve never heard of.”