The ancient Greek city Sybaris was notorious for the luxurious and sensual excesses of its citizens. Its namesake, the string quintet Sybarite5, which performed at the Barns at Wolf Trap on Friday, prefers to focus on another aspect of the city’s reputation — that “it charmed with music.” Charm and entertain the musicians did with their “Shuffle Effect” program, which allows them to announce from the stage what their iPhone has chosen for them to play next from their current 20-piece tour play-list.
This aleatoric process could have had unfortunate results (string bass player Louis Levitt said he was dreading the possibility of a bunch of slow pieces in a row), but none of this happened. What the audience got was a fascinating, cheerful and extraordinarily well played assortment of adaptations of music — of Radiohead, Led Zeppelin and Dave Brubeck, two Piazzolla tangos, a set of folk songs, four commissioned pieces and, as if to say that they could also do classical, a movement from a Mozart Divertimento.
The group’s Radiohead performances were a revelation. Stripped of amplification distortion, the tightness of the guitar replaced by delicate string pizzicatos and the vocals taken over by Laura Metcalf’s gorgeous cello legatos, “Weird Fishes” emerged as a compellingly introspective meditation with transparently shifting textures and pulsating rhythms.
Piotr Szewczyk’s “The Rebel” and Dan Visconti’s “Black Bend,” both written for Sybarite5, shared a sleek bluesy tint, but that was about all they shared. “The Rebel,” with its rhythmically insistent ostinato, was as compact as Visconti’s piece was vaporous with its delicate slides, pizzicato accents and some marvelous violin acrobatics tossed off with light abandon by Sarah Whitney.
These guys are entertainers to the core. They milked the Shuffle selection process for everything they could — taking turns manning the iPhone between each piece, drawing out the suspense and seemingly as on-edge about what they would play next as the audience was. But their music-making was serious and expert, and their performance was as compelling as any I’ve enjoyed in a long time.
Reinthaler is a freelance writer.