The string quintet version of the chamber group behind The Dido Project made its Brooklyn debut last night with a flourish. Bassist Louis Levitt worried aloud whether the group was "cool enough" to play Brooklyn, but these young boundary-challenging musicians' lack of hipster attitude is as refreshing as their playing is acute.
With technique that approached impeccable, the five members of Sybarite5 showed off their love and mastery of a variety of 20th century music (and beyond), from Barber and Piazzolla to Led Zeppelin and Radiohead. The best moments, though, came in the new works crafted specifically for this type of group. Jazzy percussiveness met minimalism in Piotr Szewczyk's "The Rebel" to start things off; then the evening really took off with a piece written for the ensemble, "Black Bend" by Dan Visconti. It started modernistically, showing off violinist Sarah Whitney's ability to draw emotion out of squeaks and clawing sounds, then morphed into a blues shuffle underlying coruscating near-chaos punctuated with dabs of humor. This was one of a number of passages during the concert in which the quintet pulled from its strings the coming-from-everywhere sound of a larger group.
Thomas Osborne's "Furioso: Vendetta for String Quintet" had a very different feel but a similar aliveness. Frantic, syncopated sixteenth-note stretches and chromatic frenzies were relieved by brief lyrical passages. A miasma of dissonant tone clusters slowed to a contemplative hum; then the piece built back up to a reprise of the opening gallop before lapsing back for an unexpectedly somber ending. Really good stuff.
As for the familiar pieces: Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" become one of the 20th century's greatest hits for good reason—its dark, wrenching beauty—but by the same token it tends to be overplayed. Sybarite5 made a good case for its continued inclusion in the concert repertoire, turning off the microphones and playing a rich, thoughtful rendition built around cellist Laura Metcalf's sensitive, melodic touch. Continuing to survey the last century's greatest hits from various genres, they ventured a dense, energetic and finally delightful arrangement of Dave Brubeck's equally overplayed "Blue Rondo a la Turk," and a multi-layered version of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven."
The harmonically complex, suite-like "Stairway" lends itself well to the "classical" treatment, but not all rock is equal. Zeppelin's riff-based "Heartbreaker" seemed gimmicky by contrast, despite Whitney's vivacious reproduction of Jimmy Page's famous out-of-time solo.
The group has also devoted a good deal of energy to its Radiohead project. Last night they played three selections by the experimental rockers, arranged smartly by Paul Sanho Kim. Some of this music, though, is too repetitious and self-consciously cerebral to really succeed at this level; dependent as they are on atmosphere, Radiohead's songs are difficult to make effective out of context. "Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box" was fun, though, with the musicians evoking the rhythms of the original through tapping on strings with spoons and other unorthodox techniques.
Sami Merdinian, the group's other violinist, hails from Argentina, and appropriately enough he led them in two crowd-pleasing Ástor Piazzolla tangos, one slow and one sprightly. Both swung heartily and showcased the ensemble's rich tones and impressively synchronized playing.
If you're looking for a worthy successor to the Kronos Quartet as a small string ensemble pushing the envelope of concert music, count this exciting gang of five as one excellent candidate.