Music feature: Take five classical musicians, throw in some Led Zeppelin and Radiohead and, voilà, you’ve got Sybarite5

May 10, 2010

FOX FORCE FIVE: Angela Pickett (viola), Louis Levitt (double bass), Laura Metcalf (cello), Sami Merdinian (violin) and Sarah Whitney (violin), from left to right

9 p.m. Fri., May 14, The Hub Incubator, 1421 Boulevard of the Arts, Sarasota, pay what you want; 8:30 p.m. Sat., May 15 and 2:30 p.m. Sun., May 16, Holley Hall, Beatrice Friedman Symphony Center, 709 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, $10-$100,, 513-543-1981 or

Sarasota native Louis Levitt fielded some nasty emails following last year’s inaugural Sybarite5 performance at Holley Hall. The Herald-Tribune had printed an incorrect start time for the quintet’s one-night show, causing a line of concert-goers to form hours before the doors opened, unaware that it was already sold out. This year Levitt decided to make it up to folks who missed out, by offering three opportunities to see the group: a Friday night show at The Hub and Saturday and Sunday performances at Holley Hall.

The popularity of Sybarite5 comes from their unique mixing of genres, juxtaposing works by well-known classical composers with the music of popular modern bands. “For me as a classical musician and a creative artist, I want to play music that I like and that I think is good,” says Levitt. “If that music is written by Mozart and Dvorák or if it’s written by Led Zeppelin and Radiohead, then I don’t care. I want to play music that I want to hear.”

The composition of the quintet allows them to make these crossovers work. “We have incredible flexibility with this group because we’ve got two violins, viola, cello and double bass,” says Levitt. “The double bass really allows the ensemble to pivot between musical genres more easily than a regular string quartet. Double bass is found in every genre of music. No matters what it is, there’s always a bass player.”

Levitt began his classical music experience in the youth orchestra program while attending Pine View, and later joined the youth program at the Sarasota Orchestra. “When I was at Pine View there was a great music director named Ken Bowermeister and it was one of the best programs in the state,” says Levitt. “Then in high school I studied privately with John Miller, who’s the principal bass in the orchestra here. Without that training there was no way I would have ever been exposed to or had the capability to actually become a professional classical musician. I think it speaks volumes for the culture of Sarasota. It’s not something that can happen anywhere.”

While studying double bass at the Cincinnati Conservatory, a professor invited Levitt to the Aspen Music Festival for their annual summer program. It was here that he made the connections that would soon lead to the formation of Sybarite5. “A bunch of us wanted to make some money so we went out on the streets of Aspen busking and the same group of us came back to play year after year,” he says. “We found that we really liked what we were doing and eventually we all kind of ended up in New York and said, ‘Hey, do you want to do this seriously?’”

The group started Sybarite5 as a nonprofit in order to help bring music to schools. They still head to Aspen every summer to play over 30 free outreach concerts. As part of this year’s stint in Sarasota they are spending this week performing for students at Pine View, Booker High School and the Sarasota Music Academy. “We’re able to connect with [students] by playing music they like, but having it rooted in classical music,” says Levitt.

Sybarite5 is also connecting with local schools through Friday’s event at The Hub: New Music Idol. New College asked their composition students to write one-minute pieces for the group to perform, and there will be a panel of local celebrity judges who will critique the pieces. At the end a live audience text vote will decided the champion. The winning work will be performed at Sybarite’s gala concerts Saturday and Sunday.

It’s not just the music that is fresh at Sybarite5 shows. The group tries to get around longstanding traditions they feel have held back classical music. “We try to break down the boundaries between the audience and the performers,” says Levitt. “Sometimes in classical music that’s a bit of an invisible wall. You have to dress a certain way and you have to clap at a certain time. We encourage people to clap whenever they want.” Sybarite is partnering with Showcase Designs, a Florida-based home staging and redesign company, to convert Holley Hall and The Hub into a living room, complete with couches and tables spread around the room and on stage. Levitt says the shows will have “an MTV Unplugged feel.”

As far as the musical concept behind Sybarite5, Levitt says the idea came on a whim: “It actually started out as a joke. We were playing a concert in Aspen and somebody screamed from the audience, ‘Hey, play some Zeppelin!’ I just kind of took the challenge. … Zeppelin’s like the Beethoven of rock.”

The Radiohead tunes came about after the group started the Radiohead Remix Project. “We actively commission composers to do new works for us that are based on Radiohead pieces,” says Levitt. “With Radiohead music, a lot of the sounds are created electronically. So we have a really unique challenge, which is how do we make that sound on our instruments without making it electronic? In the end what we’d really like to do is just commission a work from Radiohead and have them collaborate with us and write something for a string quintet.”

Looking into the future Sybarite5 plans to attract new listeners with an even broader spectrum of genres, pulling songs from avant-garde artists and even the ’90s grunge scene. “I think a Björk suite is on the way,” says Levitt. “She’s classically trained and she does all of her own arrangements for all of the orchestra stuff. I think it’d be really cool to collaborate with someone like that. … I want to play some Pearl Jam. What’s wrong with us doing some ‘Even Flow’ or ‘Porch’? Those are good songs.”

“For me it’s really exciting as someone who grew up in Sarasota to come back here and share the music that I play all around the world that wouldn’t be possible unless I was from Sarasota,” Levitt continues. “This is the type of thing that I would do in New York City, where people are open to anything. I’m doing it in Sarasota because people here are open to anything.”

Photo by Brian David Braun

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