Don’t underestimate the lure of a double bass. Six-feet tall with a throaty pitch, sloped shoulders and a thick neck, the double bass is like the violin’s reticent older brother. Subdued. Stalwart. Stable.
Rarely the instrument of a front man, the double bass is something audiences have come to expect as part of jazz ensembles and rockabilly acts — until now.
Due in part to the popularity of the Sybarite Chamber Players, a New York City-based string quintet founded by Louis Levitt, a 30-year-old Led Zeppelin fan from Siesta Key, classical music’s typically staid chamber repertoire is getting deeper, grittier and more distinct.
The ensemble is the only professional-level string quintet in the world with two violins, a cello, a viola and a double bass.
“My personal mission,” says Levitt, “has always been to expand the repertoire for string quartets. As a side project, I set out to create a role for double bassists, because if tuba players can have careers as chamber musicians, opportunities should exist for double bassists, too.”
Levitt’s love affair with the double bass started nearly 20 years ago, when he was a student at Pine View School. He had wanted to play the guitar, but the closest instrument he could find to Jimmy Page’s Les
Paul was a cumbersome four-string double bass.
Jealous of Pine View’s reputable string quartet and frustrated with the lack of chamber-music parts available to double bassists, Levitt organized the school’s first string quintet with himself on the double bass.
Under the direction of retired Pine View Orchestra conductor Kenneth Bowermeister, the five-some flourished, and Levitt soon joined the Sarasota Youth Orchestra to study under principal bassist John Miller.
In 1997, he graduated from Pine View and enrolled in the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, where he studied under Albert Laszlo. He spent his summers stringing Mozart and Dvorák at the Aspen Music Festival, a nine-week classical music festival in the Rocky Mountains, where, by sheer circumstance, the Sybarite Chamber Players was formed.
The group began as an informal street act — pick-up musicians and students on fellowships, playing for tips and free ice cream near an old drug store at the corner of Galena and Hyman streets in downtown Aspen.
They called themselves the Sybarite String Quintet, named after the ancient Greek city of Sybaris, in which hedonistic villagers, according to Greek mythology, would charm enemies by playing enchanting music.
“We figured Aspen, with its luxury, wealth and charm, is as Sybaris as it gets,” Levitt says.
They were young, hip and ambitious, classical-music groupies rubbing elbows with world-renowned performers in an upscale mountain town famous for celebrity ski vacations. They loved all types of music, including classic rock and alternative, so they started using Levitt’s double bass as an excuse to perform crossover tunes by The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Radiohead.
“Originally, we had this idea to attract younger people,” Levitt says. “But what actually happened was at the end of our concerts we’d have all these older ladies coming up to us going, ‘Oh my gosh! How come I never heard of these composers before?’ They (had) missed out on Led Zeppelin, and we had brought it to them in a way that was comfortable, but exciting.”
In 2006, the quintet came to Sarasota to play its first house concert at Howard and Ilene Grossbard’s house. It was the ensemble’s first fundraising event, and it earned enough money to launch a professional non-profit, chamber-music quintet with a rotating 11-member lineup and $100,000 budget.
In 2007, the quintet was featured on the CBS “Early Morning Show” and on NPR’s “Performance Today.”
And, in 2008, the group became the first quintet admitted into the Advanced Quartet Studies Program at the Aspen Music Festival School, where last year it gave 41 concerts.
The group has not been back to Sarasota since its first house concert three years ago, but after fielding numerous requests from friends, family and festival organizers, Levitt and company have decided to return for one, free homecoming concert.
“Without Sarasota’s support, this group wouldn’t exist,” Levitt says. “This isn’t something you’d hear with La Musica or the Sarasota Music Festival, so I feel like it’s my responsibility to bring Sybarite back to Sarasota. I owe the community so much.”
if you go
The Sybarite Chamber Players will give a free concert 7 p.m. Saturday, May 2, at Holley Hall at the Beatrice Friedman Symphony Center. Tickets for the VIP artist meet-and-greet reception are $100 and include pre-performance champagne and catering by Lan restaurant. To RSVP for free general admission or to purchase VIP tickets, call 513-543-1981 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the Sybarite Chamber Players, visit www.sybarite5.org.
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