Reviews are in: is Sybarite5 the "Musical Future?"

By MARK MORFORDFor the Gazette Wednesday, December 23, 2015 (Published in print: Thursday, December 24, 2015

Last Friday, the Arcadia Players gave its annual performance of Handel’s “Messiah” in the Abbey Chapel of Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley. Led by Ian Watson, who conducted (mostly) from the harpsichord, the performance was the best I have heard by the Arcadia Players (I’ve attended or performed in more than 100).

The forces were small — 19 singers (nine of whom sang solos) and 20 orchestral players, of whom the cellos and the double bass player provided a firm musical foundation, essential for a long and demanding performance. Susanna Ogata, the concertmaster, led with tact and authority.

The stringed instruments all had gut strings, as they would have had in Handel’s time, which makes for a softer sound and the need for frequent tuning. The bowing is different from modern performance, with the hand held further from the nut and, in the case of the bass, a shorter bow with the hand held with the palm upward.

The trumpets and the timpanist are silent for much of the oratorio, bursting forth in their full glory in the aria “The trumpet shall sound,” in which the magnificent bass soloist Woodrow Bynum filled the chapel with his powerful and dramatic voice.

All the soloists did much more than perform, for they communicated directly with us in the audience, so that Handel’s narrative became our story. The lovely and clear voice of soprano Jessica Cooper, and the subtle musicality of tenor Peter Shea, along with Bynum, made this “Messiah” even more memorable.

The central moment of the work is the alto aria “He was despised,” sung by Carrie Cheron with deep feeling and a sense of the human tragedy involved. So often “Messiah” is for audiences the “Hallelujah” chorus and other joyful music, but the crucial meaning is in the arias and choruses of the second part, introduced by Cheron’s solo.

Musical future

Two days later, in Sweeney Concert Hall at Smith College in Northampton, music of a very different sort was performed by the string quintet, Sybarite5. The musicians were dressed informally, but there was nothing in their playing that was other than of the highest professional standard.

The quintet is formed of a string quartet supplemented by a double bass (in this preceded by Schubert in his “Trout” quintet, where the piano replaces the second violin), unlike the quintets of Mozart and others, which have two violas, and of Schubert with his divine and final work for a quintet with two cellos, in which I have often played and have been deeply moved.

Each of the Sybarite5 spoke to the audience, introducing the 14 pieces to be played. All, with the exception of Edward Elgar’s beautiful and soft “Elegy,” were contemporary or recent, several composed for this group. Unlike the challenging music of Augusta Read Thomas, played here recently by the Parker Quartet, the music was inoffensive to ears familiar with the music of Mozart and Haydn, and often subtle. The best playing and most profound music was in the Elgar (never louder than piano) and the two pieces by Astor Piazzolla, the second of which was a tango and had the rather elderly audience eager to jump up and dance.

After the performance of Thomas’ work, “Helix Spirals,” I asked if this represented the future of the string quartet. Sybarite5 answered resoundingly in the negative. Of course the survival of classical chamber music depends on new music, just as Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert composed music that was new in their day. Sybarite5, a young group, has shown the way to survival by its joyful playing, its eclectic programming and its musicianship. The musicians proved how accurate is the title of their concert: “Everything In Its Right Place.”