Sybarite5: Cornering the Aspen music market

by Stewart Oksenhorn The Aspen Times Aspen, CO ColoradoASPEN — When Louis Levitt, a 19-year-old bass student at the Cincinnati Conservatory, first came to the Aspen Music School, in 1997, he expected to get an education in bowing technique; fingering; and the standard orchestral repertoire of Beethoven and Mozart, and the not-so-standard repertoire for double bass, especially works by Bach, Dvorák and Bottesini. What he didn't expect was that his Aspen training would include lessons in crowd control; figuring out what to do when rain intrudes on a concert; and the repertoire of Radiohead and Led Zeppelin. But Levitt figured he would be playing in rehearsal rooms and the Benedict Music Tent. He didn't count on the corner of Cooper and Galena, that tiny plaza in front of Paradise Bakery, becoming his prime performance venue, and a major part of his life.

On most Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday evenings this summer, Levitt appears in front of Paradise, as a member of the string quintet, the Sybarite5. It is a location Levitt knows well; he has been appearing there every summer for 13 years. And while the venue seems loose and casual — a commotion of kids and cars and ice cream cones; plenty of interaction with the audience; relaxed dress code — playing street-corner classical music in Aspen comes with its own set of pressures and learning opportunities.

“The stakes are pretty high outside the bakery. Because at any moment, Vladimir Feltsman or Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg or Gil Shaham might walk by,” the 32-year-old Levitt said. “Or your teacher. I've had teachers walk by, and they're not afraid to tell you what you're doing wrong. Your teacher, or the director of the Music Festival, can come as close as they want, lean right up in your face. At the bakery, there's no hiding anything. You've got to be on top of things. It might be one of the most stressful concerts you give.

“If you can convince the Paradise Bakery audience that something's good — and you do it in 50-degree weather, with traffic going by and someone slamming a trash can, or maybe your teacher telling you to use more vibrato — you'll have no problem at Lincoln Center.”

Sybarite5 has, in fact, gotten to test out what they've learned on the corner at some more glorified addresses, including, yes, Lincoln Center. Last month, the quintet — which features violinists Sarah Whitney and Sami Merdinian, violist Angela Pickett and cellist Laura Metcalf, as well as Levitt — played concerts at Lincoln Center's Walter Bruno Auditorium and Rubenstein Atrium, drawing lines around the block. In January, they appeared at Alice Tully Hall, also at Lincoln Center, and also played at the Chamber Music of America's national conference — “a kind of who's who of the chamber music world,” Levitt said — after being selected through a juried showcase competition. And this past December, the group performed at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., an appearance notable for the venue, yes, but even more so for the instruments. The Sybarite5 got to use the library's Stradivarius collection.

“It was pretty cool to be surrounded by $30 million of instruments onstage, and that history,” Levitt said. “They don't leave the building; they don't leave the library. They watch you wash your hands before you get the instruments.”

Another notable aspect of that concert was the repertoire. Sybarite5 played pieces by Mozart and Dvorák, but also busted out string quintet arrangements of Radiohead and Led Zeppelin.

“Would Stradivarius ever have imagined that? And would Radiohead and Led Zeppelin imagine their music being played on Strads?” an elated Levitt said.

Sybarite5 is also playing well on the record charts. Their five-track EP, “Disturb the Silence,” released this spring and featuring an Astor Piazzolla piece and Radiohead's “15 Step,” debuted at number 11 on Billboard's Classical Crossover chart.

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Levitt grew up in Sarasota, Fla., in a family that was distinctly non-musical — save his grandmother, a Russian immigrant who used to sing on the radio, and was occasionally accompanied by a very young Lorin Maazel, who went on to serve as music director of the New York Philharmonic through much of the '00s. As a kid, Levitt picked up guitar, having noticed that the older guitarists in his school always had a pack of girls surrounding them. “I figured if I started at 10, by the time I was 20, I could get any girl I wanted,” he said.

Looking back, Levitt is pleased with this strategy; he did, in fact, get the girl he wanted. In 2005, he married Blythe Gaissert, a mezzo-soprano whom he met in Cincinnati, but insisted she come to Aspen. He proposed in front of a crowd of people at Paradise Bakery to the accompaniment of Mahler's Fifth — the music the composer used to propose to his wife, Alma.

At 13, Levitt joined his school's orchestra. Upon learning that the bass strings' tuning mirrored the four low strings of the guitar, he chose bass, figuring it would be an easy jump. “The joke was on me. Because the double bass is, physically, the most difficult to play,” he said.

In the summer of 1997, Levitt joined Albert Laszlo, his teacher at the Cincinnati Conservatory, in Aspen, where Laszlo is on the Aspen Music School faculty. One of the key contacts he made was with cellist Bjorn Ranheim, Levitt's next-door neighbor at Marolt Ranch. Ranheim had quartet that played regularly in front of Paradise; when Levitt learned that Ranheim wasn't returning to Aspen the following summer, Levitt called the Fleisher Company, which managed the plaza, to see if he could take the gig.

“They said, Yeah, please,” Levitt recalled. He rounded up some musicians to play Saturday and Sunday evenings, then added a day, then another day. “I was very young and very inexperienced. And very happy to have a way to make a little extra money in Aspen, where it was so expensive and I didn't have a job. And it was fun.”

Levitt held onto the gig, using a shifting group of players he called Sybarite5, after the city in ancient Greece, a hedonistic place whose residents charmed people with music. (”Sybarite” is pronounced with a short “i” sound — “Si-burr-ite.) In 2001, Levitt got a phone call informing him that cellist David Finckel, of the Emerson String Quartet, had hurt his arm, and asking Levitt if his quintet would fill in for a concert Finckel was scheduled to play with his wife, pianist Wu Han. Levitt hung up, assuming it was a crank call. When the phone rang again and the request was repeated, Levitt took it seriously.

He couldn't take that concert, but it made him realize his quintet was taken seriously. The next season, Sybarite5 played Salida — their first formal concert. “And the experience was so great that, every time we came to Aspen, we'd get the group together,” Levitt said.

In 2005, Levitt — done with school, married, living in New York City — was ready for the next phase of his career. Fortuitously, the rest of the Sybarite5 membership at the time was also in New York. “I said, So, you want to do this?” he recalled. “And we did.”

• • • •

One of the challenges Sybarite5 bumped up against was the relative paucity of repertoire for string quintet. “The sad thing for this group is, there's almost nothing written for string quintet,” Levitt said. “And the great thing is, there's almost nothing written for string quintet.”

Taking the optimistic view, Levitt set out to build a repertoire. They began to commission works, and they also looked outside the normal channels for material. Levitt floated the idea, as a lark, to play Radiohead. That idea sat around for a year, but around 2006, Sybarite5 launched the Radiohead Remixed project, which has them playing arrangements of songs by the acclaimed British rock band.

“I was discovering I liked Radiohead as much as Stravinsky. They both tickled the same part of my brain. It's layered, a lot of ostinato, a lot of unique sounds,” Levitt said. “Everyone was into the music and was being influenced by them. It had become important music for us. We try to recreate these songs on acoustic instruments, and in a nerdy way, I love that.” Levitt dreams of commissioning a piece from Radiohead — which is maybe not so far-fetched. The band's guitarist, Jonny Greenwood, earned acclaim for his score for the 2007 film, “There Will Be Blood.”

The performances of Led Zeppelin have a rather different origin. One of the realities of playing on the street corner is people yelling requests — a lot of which happen to be “Stairway to Heaven.” “I got so fed up, I finally did it. It was a challenge,” Levitt said, noting that they've also added Zep's “Heartbreaker” to their repertoire. “The Led Zeppelin is very indulgent for us. It's like a dessert. It's good in small quantities.”

But Sybarite5 doesn't exactly shy away from its poppier aspirations. Pointing to composer-bassist Edgar Meyer, a member of the Aspen Music School faculty; adventurous string bands Time for Three and Punch Brothers; and the flute-oriented Project Trio, Levitt says, “Crossing over isn't a dirty word anymore.” Levitt said the quintet is working on a mash-up version of “Take on Me,” the 1985 synth-pop hit by Norway's A-Ha.

They are also innovating in the more proper classical realm. They have commissioned from Dan Visconti, a composer who has worked with the Berlin Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera, the world's first string quintet concerto, which is set to premiere in 2013.

• • • •

In 2008, Sybarite5 became the first quintet invited into the Aspen Music Festival's Advanced Quartet Studies Program. The quintet took master classes with the Ying and Cavani quartets, and the membership solidified into its current form.

“That was the first time I had been at the festival and didn't have to worry about being in an orchestra,” Levitt said, noting that he has played in every one of the Aspen Music Festival orchestras, including those that no longer exist. “You come here as a quartet, and all you do is quartets. It's an intensive program.”

Sybarite5 has since carved a unique niche in Aspen. They played the grand re-opening of Paepcke Auditorium last summer, and they have appeared with Condoleezza Rice at a Words & Music event. This summer, they are the Music Festival's first-ever official Alumni Ensemble, playing receptions and the like. The group also has its eye looking well beyond Aspen. Levitt wants Sybarite5 to become the first quintet to perform in all 50 states; they have upcoming concerts scheduled for Seattle and Minneapolis.

“People don't realize we have this up-and-coming concert career as chamber musicians,” Levitt said. “Our goal is not just to perform here in the summer. We want to go beyond that.”

But listeners at Volk Plaza — the official name of the space outside Paradise Bakery — might also not realize how attached Levitt and Sybarite5 are attached to their downtown Aspen venue. This is Levitt's 14th summer on the corner; he has developed close relationships with the Volk Family that owns the space; the Fleisher Company, which manages it; and the management of the bakery business. And he has an attachment to the scene — traffic, rain, shouts of “Play ‘Stairway'” and all.

“People ask us, Why do you keep coming out here, why are you playing on the street corner when you can sell out in New York?” Levitt said. “I tell them it's important to stay in touch with your roots. And this is really our roots. The music is stuff we figured out in Aspen. We've made some of our recordings in Harris Hall.

“This is such a good teacher. There are so many things you can learn. It can prepare you for anything that will come up, and it prepares you to communicate to your audience, breaking down that invisible wall between the musicians and the audience in classical music. At the bakery, none of that matters.”

The notion that music played on a corner plaza affects people in a different way than it does when presented in a concert hall is supported by some conversations Levitt had recently. Three separate people thanked him for playing, and went on to tell him that their children took up music lessons after seeing Sybarite5 in front of the bakery.

“To me, that's better than selling out a concert in New York or getting on the Billboard chart,” Levitt said.