On Stradivari instruments, a chamber group rocks Radiohead

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 20, 2010

Antonio Stradivari's instruments have been venerated, played in concert and left in taxicabs by some of the world's greatest musicians. On Saturday night, 273 years to the day after Stradivari's death, some of them were put in the hands of a young group of string players for the Library of Congress's annual Stradivarius concert, a tradition that's continued since 1936, shortly after Gertrude Clarke Whittall presented the library with five Strads to call its own.

Sybarite5, the young string quintet thus honored, represented another tradition as well. Like the Kronos Quartet, the pioneering granddaddy of contemporary chamber ensembles, and the many groups it inspired, Sybarite5 is a group that aims to play both contemporary and classical works with equal ability - their program juxtaposed Mozart with music by the indie band Radiohead - but is better at the new than the old.

The Stradivarius concert is both an opportunity for the players and good for the Strads, usually housed in glass cases in the library's Whittall Pavilion but ready and able to sing out with their rich, slightly throaty, slightly muted voices. But for the musicians, the concert is also a challenge; it's no mean feat to accustom yourself to a new instrument for a big performance. Only four members of the quintet - the two violinists, the violist and the cellist - had this particular hurdle to deal with; Louis Levitt, the ensemble's double-bass player, used his own instrument, since there is no double bass in the library's Stradivarius collection - for the simple reason that Stradivari is not thought to have made any.

If the unaccustomed instruments added a slight layer of formality to the musicians' delivery, it showed most in works from the canonical chamber repertory: Dvorak's Op. 77 string quintet, an early and exuberant piece, and Mozart's K. 138 Divertimento in F. Both were presented with a sense of cultivation, a figurative crimping of the little finger.

Sybarite5 is unusual among young chamber ensembles in that it's better at being pretty than passionate: It excelled at the exquisite, finding a delicate balance in the poised chords at the end of the Dvorak's third movement, or framing the singing violin of Sami Merdinian, who took the first violin part on both of these works. But there were also moments when the group simply wasn't in peak form: muddy ensemble playing in the first movement of the Dvorak, stridency in a phrase of the Mozart.

As so often happens on such programs, the contemporary works were presented with relish, a sense of comfort, and a frisson of missionary zeal. Merdinian assured the audience at a couple of points that being played in different styles really wasn't going to do the instruments any harm - which may have eased the minds of some listeners when Sarah Whitney, the group's other violinist, pulled out a couple of spoons before the Radiohead number "Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box" and began drumming on the strings as if the instrument were a zither. In such a setting, on such an occasion, playing Radiohead on a set of Strads bears at least a whiff of an effort to shake up tradition - a welcome effort, and one egged on by a crowd that seemed more familiar with Radiohead (and Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," offered as an encore) than multi-movement chamber works, since it greeted every movement with an enthusiastic round of applause.

The bridge between the old and the rock, and thus, in a way, the meat of the program, was two works written by young composers for Sybarite5, Piotr Szewczyk's "The Rebel" and D.C. resident Dan Visconti's "Black Bend." (Paul Sanho Kim, who did the very credible Radiohead arrangements, plays in the Fairfax Symphony and was also in the audience.) Both fused different musical vernaculars in a melting-pot style that has become a lingua franca for composers under 40: "The Rebel," high-energy and jazzy, "Black Bend," atmospheric and predominantly bluesy. This is the art-music take on popular American styles, and it was counterbalanced by two Piazzolla tangos at the end of the program.

This kind of program is practically the norm for young ensembles these days as everyone looks for ways to keep the field growing and changing for a new generation. And it's great to think that a new audience might be coming to the library, which has been offering a platform to a number of younger groups over the last couple of seasons. The only hitch involves the works from the canon; they felt, on Saturday, slightly obligatory, included like mementos in an evening whose energies were focused toward the new. Some groups do manage to avoid this sense of tokenism - by playing a little bit better than Sybarite5, for all of its energy and gloss, was able to do this weekend.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company