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Tag: Sami Merdinian

A Lushly Kinetic Album and a Chelsea Show by Inventive String Quintet Sybarite5

String quintet Sybarite5’s imaginative instrumental reinventions of Radiohead songs earned them worldwide acclaim, but their Thom Yorke fixation is only part of the picture. On their latest album, Outliers – streaming at Bandcamp – they bring their signature lush, kinetic sound to a collection of relatively brief, energetically balletesque pieces by some of their favorite indie classical composers. The result is part contemporary dance soundtrack, part 21st century chamber music: the connecting thread is tunefulness. They’re bringing that blend to a show at the Cell Theatre on Dec 7 at 8 PM; cover is $27.

The album opens with the catchy, punchily circling Getting Home (I must be…), by Jessica Meyer, the violins of Sami Merdinian and Sarah Whitney bustling tightly alongside Angela Pickett’s viola, Laura Metcalf’s cello and Louis Levitt’s bass.

Yann’s Flight, by Shawn Conley vividly echoes Philip Glass’ work for string quartet, right down to the dancing pizzicato from the bass and the cello’s stern counterpoint. As the group build the piece, hints of an Irish reel contrast with stillness, then more triumphantly rhythmic images of flight.

Eric Byers’ Pop Rocks is a playful, coyly bouncing staccato web of cell-like, Glassine phrasing. Dan Visconti’s triptych Hitchhiker’s Tales begins with the alternating slow swoops and momentary flickers of Black Bend, slowly morphing into a majestic blues with some snazzy, slithery, shivery work from the violins. The considerably shorter Dixie Twang gives the group a launching pad for icepick pizzicato phrasing, followed by another miniature, Pedal to the Metal, where they scamper together to the finish line.

They dig into the punchy, polyrhythmic scattato of Revolve, by Andy Akiho, with considerable relish; Levitt’s understated, modal bassline anchors the lithe theme, the violins eventually rising to a whirlwind of blues riffage. Mohammed Fairouz’s Muqqadamah, which follows, is the most pensive, airy, baroque-flavored track here.

The rest of the album is inspired by dance styles from around the world and across the centuries. The band expand deviously from a stark, wickedly catchy 19th century minor-key blues theme in Kenji Bunch’s Allemande pour Tout le Monde. Daniel Bernard Roumain’s Kompa for Toussaint also builds out of a minor-key oldtime blues riff to some neat, microtonal hints of a famous Nordic theme, then an enigmatic mist. Sarabande, another Byers piece, slowly emerges from and then returns to a wistful spaciousness.

The album’s most shapeshiftingly catchy track, Michi Wiancko’s Blue Bourée blends blues, the baroque and a little funk. The final number is Gi-gue-ly, by cinematic violist/composer Ljova, a delicious, Balkan-inflected, trickily syncopated tune that grows to pulsing misterioso groove. It’s a party in a box, probably the last thing a lot of people would expect from a contemporary classical string ensemble.

String Ensemble Sybarite5 Sell Out Subculture

[republished from Lucid Culture, New York Music Daily’s jazz and classical annex]

Sybarite5 are a game-changer in the chamber music world. A cynic might say that the chamber music world needs a change: what appeared to be a sold-out, mostly twentysomething crowd Sunday night at Subculture might have agreed. Maybe it’s Sybarite5’s imaginative, genre-defying programming that pulls a younger demographic. Or maybe it’s their obsession with Radiohead: their 2013 album of new arrangements of songs by that band is a landmark in art-rock, a genre they also embrace. Whatever the case, they drew raucous applause and screams for an encore that might not have been out of place in another century when string quintets were more common, but aren’t exactly what you come to expect in the more sedate confines of, say, Carnegie Hall.

The group – violinists Sami Merdinian and Sarah Whitney, violist Angela Pickett, cellist Laura Metcalf and bassist Louis Levitt – opened with the first of the Radiohead covers, 15 Step, reinventing it as a kinetic, almost funky piece with hints of a canon but also a lively country dance, some of the members beating out a rhythm on the bodies of their instruments. They followed with a contemporary piece, Dan Visconti’s Black Bend, which slowly came together as a blues and then drifted from the center again.

Merdinian’s Armenian-Argentinian heritage came to the forefront with a couple of Armenian folk songs, a plaintive lament and then a bracing dance from the Komitas catalog. They offered a rapturously tender take of Astor Piazzolla’s Milonga del Angel, but then reveled in another Piazzolla piece, Esqualo, bringing its shark-fishing narrative to life with a sinewy intensity. It was here especially that Levitt’s role made itself clear, driving the music with the power of a rock bassist.

There was also more Radiohead (a surrealistically pulsing take of Weird Fishes and a broodingly anthemic remake of No Surprises); Shawn Conley’s Yann’s Flight, a cinematic depiction of Hawaiian hang gliding; a tensely circular, cinematically crescendoing Jessica Meyer premiere, and a romp through a Taraf de Haidoucks Romany number that was as feral as it was majestic. They encored with an irresistibly droll mashup of the old 80s cheese-pop hit Take on Me with Flight of the Bumblebee. Anyone who thinks that chamber music is strictly for greybeards wasn’t at this show. Roll over Beethoven, tell Tschaikovsky the news.

Sybarite5 Reinvent Radiohead

The most radically successful Radiohead cover album until now was the Easy Star All-Stars’ 2006 release Radiodread, a dub reggae collection that mixed hits from the band’s early days through what might someday be considered their early zeros peak as paradigmatic art-rockers. If there’s any criticism of Radiohead that’s stood the test of time, it’s that their music is cold and mechanical: it doesn’t exactly swing. So making bouncy, frequently wry roots reggae out of it took care of that issue. String quintet Sybarite5 approach Radiohead’s music from the opposite direction, taking it dead seriously, and the result is just as memorable if completely different. The adventurous ensemble – violinists Sami Merdinian and Sarah Whitney, violist Angela Pickett, cellist Laura Metcalf and bassist Louis Levitt will  be playing songs from their new album Every Thing in Its Right Place on June 8 at 8 PM at Subculture on Bleecker St. just east of Lafayette; general admission is $25. The  album is streaming at the group’s Bandcamp page.

Some will say that Sybarite5’s instrumental versions are better than the originals. As much as the layers of electronic effects in Radiohead’s music can sound completely random, they’re meant to create a dissociative, disquieting effect. But they can be distracting. Sybarite5’s no-nonsense arrangements for the most part steer clear of that side of Radiohead, putting the melodies front and center and reaffirming just how strong they are. As you might expect from a classical ensemble, the songs draw primarily from Kid A forward. An especially lithe, dancing version of 15 Step opens this album, bringing new life to the song without losing any of the original’s haunting austerity, the sailing violin line reminding of something ELO’s Mik Kaminsky might have played 25 years previously.

The. title track adds an element of ominous foreshadowing missing from the original as it rises: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Philip Glass repertoire. Paranoid Android shifts from a lively bounce, to an agitated, cleverly arranged exchange of voices, to a plaintive baroque rondo and then up again. Videotape pulses tensely and quietly with subtle polyrhythic percussion tapped out on the bodies of the instruments. Likewise, the tongue-in-cheek intro to Weird Fishes mimics the original’s crackling intro; then shivery high strings do the same later on.

No Surprises gets reinvented as a gentle canon. Without Thom Yorke’s bratty vocals, the stark, claustrophic angst of Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box cuts through much more sharply. With subtle bends in a violin line and a little brittle vibrato on the cello, Pyramid Song gets a welcome subtlety missing from the original, raising the nocturnal ambience early on and then taking flight plaintively on the wings of the violins. 2 + 2 = 5 hints at a march and then hits a giant leap; the album winds up with a moody, Indian summer take of Motion Picture Soundtrack. Radiohead fans will love this – and it might well serve as an overdue introduction to Radiohead for some of the classical crowd as well.