It's perfectly reasonable to attend a chamber music concert expecting to hear longish, multi-part compositions with complex tonal structures and rich harmonies.
I'm talking, of course, about Radiohead's "Paranoid Android" and Led Zeppelin's "Stairway To Heaven," two rock songs you might hear when string quintet Sybarite 5 performs at the University of Hartford's Millard Auditorium on Feb. 6.
Sybarite 5 is one of a handful of chamber groups turning classical music on its head. They've played Carnegie Hall and the Library of Congress, the Museum of Sex and the Apple Store, and recently released their second CD, "Everything In Its Right Place," a recital of Radiohead transcriptions by arranger Paul Sanho Kim. They even created their own signature shindig — the Forward Festival, which takes place this year in Sarasota, Fla., starting on May 6 — in an effort to unite with like-minded artists and composers.
It's hard to say, however, if "Paranoid Android" or "Stairway To Heaven," two prog-pop warhorses, will be on the UHa program. In keeping with the rocker stance, Sybarite doesn't print programs, preferring instead to call out songs from the stage. (Setlists are published the next day on their website.)
"We'll definitely include selections from the Radiohead CD and some new works we've premiered," cellist Laura Metcalf, a West Hartford native, said. Thursday's concert, which is part of the ongoing Richard P. Garmany Chamber Music Series, marks Metcalf's first hometown appearance with Sybarite. "It's really exciting because [in the past] maybe I wasn't pursuing opportunities that I wanted to share with my hometown," she said. "But this project is worthy of that... And I'm really excited to see my old teachers from high school."
The spectre of rock continues to shock at the concert hall, but that may be changing. In the last few years, indie classical artists have been popping up everywhere (mostly within a few miles of Brooklyn, N.Y.). Progressive labels like New Amsterdam Records regularly release recordings of works by young composers as comfortable with the Beatles and/or the Smiths as with Bartok and Stravinsky, maybe more so. Last year, "Partita for 8 Voices," a four-part vocal composition by 30-year-old violinist and singer Caroline Shaw, performed and recorded by vocal group Roomful of Teeth for New Amsterdam, won the Pulitzer Prize for Music.
Metcalf's training on her instrument was traditional. Her "aha" moment — the realization that she could craft a career playing all of the music she loves, not just the classical stuff — occurred the very first time she jammed with Sybarite. "The first thing we did was play a Radiohead song," she said. "They've been a band I've loved every since high school… Making that connection, listening to that music for so long and then actually playing it on my instrument: that was the moment."
The members of Sybarite play whatever they want — cool jazz, Argentinian tango, Zeppelin, Mozart — as long as they all love it and think it'll reach the audience. The unspoken condition, perhaps, is a certain degree of complexity; Radiohead and Led Zeppelin, of course, didn't play "Louie Louie." Both groups aimed at something loftier: rock as art-music. In some ways, chamber ensembles like Sybarite offer a form of completion: by performing art-rock on acoustic, classical instruments, in traditional settings, the loop is closed. And, as great as they were, Sybarite probably won't be arranging the Ramones anytime soon.
"It's easy for a string ensemble to cover any kind of rock and pop," Metcalf said. "It's pretty simple and easy to play. We've received and rejected arrangements of tunes we thought wouldn't work. The raw material of Radiohead is amazing, but also the arrangements we have are really nuanced, translating it beautifully and artfully… We're playing chamber music series, and so we have to play music whose greatness stands up to, say, the Dvorak bass quintet."
Sybarite discovered Kim, a Virginia-based composer and violinist, through YouTube and subsequently invited him to arrange for the group. ("No Surprises," on "Everything In Its Right Place," is the quintet's own arrangement.) "Stairway To Heaven" posed a different kind of challenge: forced to find an alternative to a John Bonham-style, drum-heavy entrance at the song's climax, they up the intensity as the song progresses by steadily increasing the tempo. Their instrumentation — two violins, viola, cello and double bass — demands that they be inventive with the musical forces at their disposal (tempo, dynamics, octave doubling, and so on) to re-create the rock-ness of it all.
The double bass, played by Louis Levitt, helps out quite a bit. (Levitt's been known to thump and pound the wood of his instrument as a way of adding percussion.) "We do have to find ways to take it to another level," Metcalf said, "figuring out how to be percussive or making sure our dynamic range is wide enough for what we need, finding ways to make this music resonate, even though we only have five acoustic instruments... If we were just a quartet it would be more difficult."
These days, Metcalf said, musicians need to be versatile in order to make a career out of playing music.
"It's still possible to stay strictly within a classical world, but the chances of success are limited," Metcalf said. "I've definitely found that I have greater satisfaction because I'm able to do everything, all across the spectrum, classical and non-classical… I think if you look at young musicians, a large number are stepping outside the box."
SYBARITE 5 appears Thursday, Feb. 6, at 7:30 p.m. Millard Auditorium in the Alfred C. Fuller Center, University of Hartford, 200 Bloomfield Ave., West Hartford. Tickets are $35. Call 860-768-4228 or visit hartford.edu/hartt.