Fort Worth — So what happens when a group of talented young string players grows up listening to Kronos Quartet and practicing a lot? Sybarite5, or something like it, is probably what happens. This ensemble of young musicians—string quartet plus double bass—is undeniably talented, with an unusual fluidity and facility of technique. Also, they’ll probably bring so-called classical music to audiences who might not otherwise be interested. But overall, they are not doing much that the Kronos and Turtle Island Quartets didn’t do, and better, 25 years ago.
The Cliburn Sessions at the Live Oak is a great idea. It brings crossover groups to a club-type venue where listeners might be more likely to hear singer/songwriters or jazz. These crossover groups excel in this type of environment—typically there are no programs, the groups engage with the audience by announcing their set lists from the stage, and the venue is intimate, although not always quiet, since the bar remains open throughout the performance and audience members tend to wander about a bit more than they would in a concert hall.
Sybarite5 (Sami Merdinian and Sarah Whitney, violins; Angela Pickett, viola; Laura Metcalf, cello; and Louis Levitt, bass) performs well in this type of venue—all of the members seemed relaxed and personable, taking turns speaking to the audience to announce their repertoire. They didn’t seem distracted by the small audience’s comings and goings, and took distinct pleasure in their music making, sometimes smiling as they played.
Prior to intermission, they performed three pieces by contemporary composers, followed by the first of three arrangements of Radiohead songs. The three contemporary works were where the ghosts of Kronos past were most evident. Imitations of guitar distortion, percussive techniques on the bodies of the instruments, harmonics, and sul ponticello (playing almost on top of the bridge to create a ghostly, glassy sound) were all in abundance.
Crossover groups seem fascinated by the music of Radiohead, presumably because some of the band’s members are classically trained and the songs have more complex rhythms and harmonies than do many other pop songs. Sybarite5, in fact, announced that they are planning an entire album of Radiohead arrangements. The song “Paranoid Android” seems a particular favorite of groups playing at the Cliburn Sessions—duo pianists Anderson & Roe performed the same song at the same venue back in March.
After intermission, the group showed that they can play traditional classical music with a movement of Mozart’s Divertimento in B Flat. Their Mozart was technically and musically adept, yet seemed like tokenism in the context of the rest of their program.
The group’s two arrangements of Piazzolla tangos were effective enough to win praise from an Argentinian sitting at my table. They have a fine sense of tango rhythm as well as the technical chops to pull off Piazzolla’s considerable complexities. These pieces as well as the arrangements of Armenian folk songs they performed on the second half of the program were in many ways the most successful aspects of the concert. Maybe this group’s ideal niche is in performing music from South America and Eastern Europe, because that they did very well Thursday evening.
These five musicians are young, lively, attractive, and wicked talented—just the thing the classical music world needs to bring a more youthful demographic to concerts. To stand out, though, they might want to find an angle that hasn’t already been explored quite so thoroughly.