Sybarite5 shows strong musicianship in uneven program

By Lawrence Budmen

Sybarite5 performed Thursday night at Coral Gables Congregational Church.

Sybarite5 performed Thursday night at Coral Gables Congregational Church.

In recent years, partly due to the perilous financial state of American symphony orchestras and opera companies, many conservatory graduates have formed their own ensembles. While most of these young musicians have started traditional string quartets or trios, others have veered toward crossover groups or ad hoc ensembles with a flexible number of musicians.

Sybarite5, which the Community Arts Program presented Thursday night at Coral Gables Congregational Church, is a New Age, boundary-pushing quintet. Consisting of the traditional string quartet formation plus double bass, the players specialize in playing and commissioning new music, much of it with a pop sensibility.

These musicians are first-rate players. Violinists Sami Merdinian and Sara Whitney (who exchanged places throughout the program), violist Angela Pickett, cellist Laura Metcalf and bassist Louis Levitt exhibited a combination of fearless technique, fiery enthusiasm and strong corporate ensemble skills that would be welcome in any musical organization. Sybarite is defined as a person devoted to pleasure and the players indeed seemed  to be enjoying themselves. Sybarite5 is certainly artistically superior to many of this new breed of pop- inspired chamber amalgamations, evidencing higher artistic ambitions. Yet, perhaps inevitably, their choice of music was uneven in quality.

The concert’s first half featured a series of short works built around repetitive musical figures. Jacksonville native Piotr Szewczyk’s The Rebel was an example of this type of hyper-busy writing, leavened by allusions to country fiddling.

Classical musicians seem to be drawn to the songs of the British rock band Radiohead. Pianist Christopher O’Riley, cellist Matt Haimowitz and Miami’s own Nu Deco Ensemble are among the artists who have performed transcriptions of that group’s music.  With Levitt’s bass at times trying to simulate the sound of Radiohead’s electric guitars, Paranoid Android worked best in the brief central episode when the music slowed down and long repeated chords suggested minimalist stasis. Still this rock group’s songs do not mix easily or well with classically trained players.

Metcalf’s cello assayed a charming, homespun theme in Shawn Conley’s Yann’s Flight, a portrait of hang gliding. Conley, himself a bass player, gave Levitt a chance to shine in a bass solo, utilizing the instrument for melodic purpose. There was more rhythmic hard drive in two movements from Dan Visconti’s Hitchhiker’s Tales, not the best work by this talented composer. The second vignette sounded incredibly like Leroy Anderson’s Jazz Pizzicato. and Levitt got so incisive plucking his bass that his peg broke and he had to run offstage to get a replacement.

The best  of the recent compositions prior to intermission was Prelude by Mohammed Fairouz, a rising star among the younger generation of American composers. Inspired by the opening movements of Bach’s suites, Fairouz engagingly interconnects thematic fragments in an updated neo-Baroque manner. The score’s long-breathed lines drew deep tone from the five players. They certainly know their Piazzolla, capturing the frenzied nuevo tango beat of La muerte del ángel.

In the program’s second half, the players seemed more relaxed and the music played was of higher quality. From its initial bars, Jessica Meyer’s Getting Home (I Must Be…) was an appealing concoction of sharp melodic cells. Kenji Bunch’s Allemande is a terrific piece that turns from plucked voices into Baroque string figures without sounding pretentious. Revolve by Andy Akiho, several of whose works were recently spotlighted in a Nu Deco concert, is typical of the composer’s relentless momentum. Just when the score seems to be running out of steam, it changes focus as new musical ideas come into play.

A chamber version of Elgar’s Elegy for strings displayed the musicians’ sweetness of timbre and finely matched sonority in more traditional mainstream repertoire. Two Armenian Folk Songs by the priest and composer Komitas contrasted warm, flowing tunes with energetic dance rhythms in the unbridled manner of Nikos Skalkottas’ once-popular Greek Dances. Gypsy fiddling and Middle Eastern coloring blended in transcriptions of Turkish folk songs, the group’s brilliant precision taking full charge for a rousing finale.

The Coral Gables Congregational Church Summer Concert Series presents guitarist Angel Romero 8 p.m. August 18. 305-448-7421;

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Fri Jun 24, 2016
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