Oh, the irony. One of this week’s better ticket values—the New York-based string quintet Sybarite5, which performed at the tiny Chelsea venue The Cell—brought me into one of New York’s most lush-feeling, upper-crusty spaces imaginable. For $20, on January 22 I sat in what felt like the front parlor of someone’s spacious, renovated nineteenth-century home, and listened to this alternative string group play for a little under two hours. The room dimensions and the intimate atmosphere weren’t probably far from the chamber-music standard in the nineteenth century, when many concerts were performed in salons or as invitation-only social events. None of the audience members, seated on old church pews or on chairs set up on platforms or on the floor, was more than about ten yards from the musicians. (Past the jump, see a preview of a free performance and party at another unusual performance space: the old downtown Tower Records store.)
On the other hand, Sybarite5 is anything but nineteenth-century in outlook. Their program included commissioned pieces by Piotr Szewczyk—his three-minute-long whimsical piece The Rebel, with hints of Eastern European folksiness tinged with blues—and Dan Visconti, whose Black Bend started with free-form, slow pitch-bending phrases that morphed into a rollicking Memphis blues,with all five members digging heavily into the strings for maximum effect. (I wished there were a larger audience to whoop and holler at the right moments, which would have been the right response to what we were hearing.) There were also arrangements of parts of Piazzolla’s Tango Suite and Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite, the latter arranged by bassist Louis Levitt, the group’s director.
Argentinian violinist Sami Merdinian was the star of the Piazzolla tangos, especially in his sensual approach to melody in the slower two movements, “Fuga y Mysterio” and “Milonga del Angel.” The group’s other violinist, Sarah Whitney, came most vividly to life in the three arrangements of songs by Radiohead. In Paul Sanho Kim’s arrangement of “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box,” Whitney used spoons and pens on her violin as it sat on her lap, making it into a percussion instrument. Levitt used what looked like a back-scratcher to hit his bass strings in the same piece. Merdinian popped his bow on the violin strings, before picking up the song’s melody line; violist Angela Pickett played the song’s moaning inner line by sliding repeatedly up and down the strings and cellist Laura Metcalf made her cello into a wailing, sliding electric guitar. The quintet’s encore was an arrangement of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” Is there anyone besides me who finds it hard to listen to that song without thinking about bad junior-high-school dances? No matter. It’s the kind of song that can bare up to revising, and this version—arranged by John Reed of the Hampton String Quartet—was enthusiastically received, with both players and audience seeming to enjoy the string-y take on that song’s repeating chord sequence. We definitely got our money’s worth.
One of Sybarite5’s stated goals is to play in different sorts of performance spaces than the ones traditionally reserved for classical music. Judging from this one event, the Cell seems to be an excellent space for chamber music, with its bare wooden floors and a fairly rectangular shape; apart from some artwork on the walls and a small office/balcony overlooks the back of the room, there is nothing to impede the flow of sound. Sybarite 5 will be back there in October and December of this year with two more programs. In the meantime, you can catch them in performances they’ve posted at their website or you can sample them in the YouTube video posted below, Radiohead’s “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box.”
Postscript: Speaking of chamber music in unusual performance spaces, I recommend stopping by a free concert at the old Tower Records on Broadway and West 4th Street on February 1 at 7 p.m. That’s when the New York-based Metropolis Ensemble, led by music director Andrew Cyr, will play Avner Dorman’s Concerto for Mandolin with soloist Avi Avital. The piece has a virtuosic mandolin part and an amalgam of styles including Middle Eastern harmonies, lots of minor seconds, fluttering tremolos, and string bits that occasionally sound like something from a Bernard Herrmann film score. Naxos has just released a CD of Avner Dorman pieces—the mandolin concerto is on it—and is hosting a CD release party there that’s open to the public. At the event, all attendees will get a free CD and there’s a reception and CD signing after the performance. The whole thing is coordinated through No Longer Empty, a non-profit organization that organizes site-specific public art exhibitions in vacated storefronts and properties in New York City. The point is, Avner Dorman, born in 1975, seems to be the real deal, and there’s something rather wonderful about the chance to hear his music for free in the defunct Tower store. More information on the event at Tower Records is available here.
Listen to a clip of Avner Dorman’s “Mandolin Concerto” below. Clip courtesy Naxos: