Last night, Sunday, April 1, I went to the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music to hear a concert by Sybarite5, a string quintet, performing under the auspices of Five Boroughs Music Festival. They had performed the same concert on Saturday night in Manhattan, but I was at the NY Philharmonic and so, as a dedicated supporter of 5BMF, made the Sunday trek under the river and through the woods….
Sybarite5 consists of a standard string quartet (2 violins, viola, cello) plus a double bass. This gives them more depth than the more typical quintet set-up with an extra viola or extra cello, and is particularly useful because this group disregards traditional boundaries between "classical music" and other musical genres, and having that bass available for percussion purposes as well as its links to jazz and pop is quite useful.
I don't know if this is their usual procedure, but last night they decided to go without a program listing of the works they would play, including a brief note that works would be announced from the stage. However, there was a one-page insert giving the movement titles for a work written for them that was being premiered in this series of concerts, "New York Minutes" by Mohammed Fairouz, a series of seven short movements purporting to provide musical impressions of particular places in NYC at particular times of day or night. Foregoing a regular printed program might have been due to the improvisatory nature of the group and a wish to put off a final choice of pieces and order until right before the concert, but I think it does a disservice to composers and listeners. Most musical performance students do not take lessons in public speaking, and it shows. The spontaneous comments from the stage tend to be disorganized, not well thought-out, and not always clear as to who wrote what and who arranged what, with announcements sometimes coming after rather than before a piece was played. If I found a piece particularly interesting and wanted to follow up by seeking out recordings of music by a composer, it helps to know the composer's name, properly spelled. Not possible with the poor quality of announcements as to some of these works.
The program provided a melange of works in different styles, some definitely contemporary and written or arranged for this ensemble, some "classical" — a bit of Brahms, a bit of Rachmaninoff — and some "world music" – a Turkish piece that sounded to me a bit of a relative to Enescu and, at the same time, klezmer? What they all had in common was the infectious enthusiasm with which Sybarite5 performs, yielding performances that are, on occasion, a bit "rough and ready" but that always capture the spirit of the music. Purists might blanch at a string quintet arrangement of the "scherzo" movement that Brahms contributed to a joint violin sonata project with other composers, but I thought the arrangement captured the spirit of the music well, despite substituting a string ensemble for a piano! I enjoyed the arrangment of Rachmaninoff's Vocalise, and immediately thought that they should ask the same arranger ( noted on their website as Paul Sanho Kim) to put together a similar transcription of Szymanowski's Etude, Op. 4, No. 3, its close cousin.
At intermission I bought one of their CD's, and was startled on popping it into the player at home to find that it ran only 28 minutes and had a mysterious extra composition beyond those listed on the cover… Well, home-made CD releases have a way of surprising you. I found the performances on the CD more polished than the live performances and no less lively. Perhaps when they've accumulated another half hour of recorded material, they could reissue the entire thing at normal length… perhaps even with some program notes about the music and the challenges of arranging pieces from other media for string quintet.
I'd certainly like to hear them again. They announced that they will be doing a date at Carnegie Zankel Hall in the future…