"... ditch the white wigs and buckled shoes, baby."

by , for the Chattanooga Pulse

January 16, 2014

Sybarite5 is classically trained to rock you

When you think of chamber music, Radiohead and “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box” is likely not the first thing that comes to mind. But that’s why the string quartet Sybarite5, coming to UTC’s Patten Performances series on Jan. 27, has found audiences outside the traditional classical music world.

“Radiohead was a huge part of what I listened to in high school,” says cellist Laura Metcalf. “And they are one band all five of us had a strong interest in…the music has really interesting textures and lends itself to string instruments. Although we have to figure out how to recreate the percussion…sometimes we use props.”

As they likely will in the Chattanooga performance, she says. The group’s most recent release is a whole album of Radiohead music, called “Everything In Its Right Place.”

Sybarite5 in its (mostly) current incarnation was founded in 2008 at the Aspen Music Festival. “In the beginning, Louis [Levitt, the double bassist], was just getting students together to play on street corners,” Metcalf says. Now it isn’t crazy to say that the group, currently comprised of Sami Merdinian and Sarah Whitney, violins; Angela Pickett, viola; Metcalf and Levitt, is bringing the sexy back to chamber music.

And lest you think there was never any sexy to bring back, consider this, from Donald Francis Tovey’s “The Main Stream of Music and Other Essays”: “Haydn, whose first quartets became rapidly and widely popular, was frowned upon by this and that preserver of the official dignity of music who could predict no good from such vulgar beginnings; nor was Haydn ever spared the charge of rowdiness even in his ripest works.”

The name, Metcalf says, comes from the ancient city of Sybaris, where music charmed the inhabitants. Asked about the connotation of “lover of luxurious indulgence” with the word “sybarite,” she laughs. “That too—Aspen is a pretty luxurious place.”

The group sometimes commissions work especially for them, as in the concerto currently being composed for them by Dan Visconti, and sometimes a member hears a piece and knows it’s right for Sybarite5, as in the case of a jazz piece by Sean Connolly that Levitt heard at a convention of bass players. (The latter piece will also be on the list for the Chattanooga performance.)

But, as Metcalf explains, the decision to work on a piece of music has to be unanimous, “although,” she says, “we sometimes have to convince one or two people. We have to choose music we feel complete conviction about.”

One of Sybarite5’s main missions, Metcalf says, is to bring in audience members who are not traditional chamber music fans. To that end, the group has played in all kinds of venues: Carnegie Hall, the Library of Congress, Lincoln Center—and Galapagos Artspace, the Apple Store, the Museum of Sex, the Core Club, and the Cutting Room, and at the Cell Theatre, where the group maintains a residency.

“We love audiences that are receptive and responsive,” says Metcalf. “That inspires us to play with even more conviction.” And passion, one suspects.

While the UTC Fine Arts Center may not be quite as racy as the Museum of Sex, ditch the white wigs and buckled shoes, baby. This is chamber music for the 21st century.