Classically trained Sybarite5 works to make chamber music a pleasure

Sybarite5 are Sami Merdinian (violin), Angela Pickett (viola), Louis Levitt (bass), Sarah Whitney (violin) and Laura Metcalf (cello). Photo by Brian David Braun.
Sybarite5 are Sami Merdinian (violin), Angela Pickett (viola), Louis Levitt (bass), Sarah Whitney (violin) and Laura Metcalf (cello). Photo by Brian David Braun.

Some people may take Radiohead less seriously than Mozart. Those people would not include the musicians of Sybarite5.

"We are all classically trained, and we approach all music with the same detail, striving for perfection, intonation, all the things that make for a great performance," says violinist Sami Merdinian.

That said, playing music originally written for rock bands with traditional classical music instruments isn't just like playing Mozart.

"We use a lot of techniques not taught in conservatory," Merdinian says. "There's a lot of exploring and working with composers and coming up with something to reflect the original song."

He cites examples like using the bow as a percussive instrument on muted strings to echo the texture of distorted or tremolo guitar. Bassist Louis Levitt pounds on his instrument a lot more than most classical bassists.

Sybarite5 met like many a chamber ensemble does, at a school or other classical music institution. In this case, it was the Aspen Music Festival.

"Aspen was not a cheap town, and we needed some money," Merdinian says.

So the group, formed by Levitt, started out busking in 2006 in front of a coffee shop in Aspen, though that did not last too long. Soon the group was getting bookings and building the lineup it has today: Merdinian, Levitt, violinist Sarah Whitney, violist Angela Picket and cellist Laura Metcalf.

The name has dual inspiration: Sybaris was an ancient Greek city known for its pursuit of the sensual. It was also the name of a boat owned by a relative of Levitt, whose grandmother suggested the name.

And the group definitely enjoyed playing in beautiful outdoor environments that Merdinian says began informing the group's repertoire. It plays in a casual style, talking with the audience between selections. The music is a mix of contemporary and classic repertoire, and it does not play multi-movement works.

"If you don't like what you're hearing, you never have to wait 20 minutes for the next piece," Merdinian says.

A lot of this breaks with classical music tradition, but it has not slowed down Sybarite5, which has had full calendars of concerts and residencies the last several years, the honor of being the first string quintet to win the Concert Artists Guild International Competition and status as the Aspen Music Festival's Alumni Ensemble from 2009 to 2013.

One of the group's goals is to be the first string quintet to play all 50 states, and Sunday's gig at the University of Kentucky's Singletary Center for the Arts will bring the total to 38. Merdinian is not announcing the repertoire for the group's Kentucky debut ahead of time but says the majority of the arrangements will be Kentucky premieres.

"Most of it written in the last 10 years," Merdinian says.

No doubt those will include at least a few pieces by Radiohead, whose Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box, arranged by Paul Kim, was the first original arrangements Sybarite5 played. The quintet's latest album is a Radiohead collection, Everything in Its Right Place.

The group, which has also played and recorded works by Led Zeppelin and other rock acts, is far from the first classical outfit to pick up on Radiohead, which Merdinian says makes sense.

"The music is very well composed," Merdinian says. "If you notate them down, you can tell it was written by someone with classical training, that there's complexity and melody; it's a complete piece."

To further the genre-crossing theme, Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood has a burgeoning reputation scoring films such as The Master (2012) and serves as composer in residence for the BBC Concert Orchestra.

Thus far, Sybarite5 has had no direct contact with Radiohead. But when asked about playing any of Greenwood's work, Merdinian has a very specific wish: "One of our bucket list items is to have a commission from him. That would be amazing."

Of course, Sybarite5 plays in a genre that is often hidebound by traditions.

"Why put limits on what you want to hear," Merdinian says. "Our brains can take more than the limits we put on them.

"Hopefully people will leave refreshed that they got to know music they have not heard before."