Described as a “millennial Kronos Quartet” by critic J. Robin Coffelt, SYBARITE5’s mission is to make the string quintet the definitive 21st century ensemble. Winners of the Concert Artists Guild International Competition, SYBARITE5 has grabbed the attention of avid fans of classical music and new listeners alike. Their breadth of programming – ranging from Elgar to Visconti to Radiohead – along with their passion for education and artistic partnerships combine to make them the perfect ambassadors for their art.
When SYBARITE5 paid DePauw University a visit, 21CM Director Mark Rabideau took the chance to sit down with double bassist Louis Levitt and violinists Sami Merdinian and Sarah Whitney to discuss what motivates them as an ensemble and how they’ve been able to form such a distinct voice.
On pursuing long-term growth…
Louis Levitt: A big thing in our ensemble is musical growth. … There is no “I’ve arrived, and now I’m good and everything’s fine.” You can’t just coast. [Coasting] is like a long, slow, downward hill, and before you know it, you’re at the bottom. That’s a philosophy in our ensemble – that we have to be growing musically and artistically, and always trying new things. That’s how we’re able to keep things interesting, fresh and satisfying for the players and audience.
Sarah Whitney: One thing that I think is important to remember is that we grow the most from our challenges and the risks that we take.
Sami Merdinian: I feel like [it’s important to meet] regularly without our instruments – you can call it a business meeting, but it’s really creative meetings. [We see] what we can do … to stay true to ourselves but also push the envelope.
On the versatility of string quintets…
Levitt: I’ve always felt very comfortable with strings, so when it came time to figure out a good ensemble to create a career path for with double bass, strings were really natural. Kind of like Chopin – he wrote mostly for piano. He was super comfortable with that. If all of a sudden we had clarinet or trumpet, I probably would not be so good at the arrangements. Also … the double bass is an extremely flexible, versatile instrument. One of the reasons the ensemble works well is because the bass can act as a pivot. So we can genre-hop very easily … without having to do as much work as a string quartet because we already have one of the instruments that you need, and that’s bass.
On finding an authentic voice…
Merdinian: I think we all have different strengths and backgrounds, and I think that informs a lot of the repertoire we end up playing. I’m from Argentina, from Armenian origins. You will see that part of our repertoire represented. [It’s] the same thing with Angela [Pickett] being from Newfoundland. I think we all go through a different path, Sarah with her experience in the jazz world, improvising. Everyone has their own strengths.
Whitney: I think also in the classical conservatory, we’re taught to recreate, not to create. … I wanted to touch on people being critical. In some ways it can come from a fear of not being sure that they trust themselves to create. It’s scary, yeah. It is. [With] the Silk Road Ensemble, I did some of the scariest things ever onstage. Getting up there and doing things I’d never done in my entire life, after two-hour rehearsals. But it was amazing. Yeah, it’s going to be scary, but it doesn’t have to be bad-scary.
The above interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Want to check out “Outliers,” SYBARITE5’s new album? You can buy it here.