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Fivebyfive sheds pretension, embraces fun on 'The Play Album'


With the debut album “Of and Between” in 2021, the chamber music quintet fivebyfive established itself as Rochester’s preeminent interpreters of works by living composers. It would have been easy enough for the ensemble to get complacent on its sophomore release and settle into chamber music repertoire that was either conventional or unchallenging.

Instead, fivebyfive continues to seek out compelling young composers with whom to collaborate, and in the process redefine what contemporary classical music can be. And the group keeps looking outside the world of music for inspiration. With “The Play Album,” out Feb. 19, fivebyfive was inspired to commission new works based on toys at the National Toy Fall of Fame, housed at The Strong Museum of Play.

Throughout most of this briskly paced collection, flutist Laura Lentz, clarinetist Marcy Bacon, pianist Haeyeun Jeun, electric guitarist Ken Luk, and bassist Eric J. Polenik push the tempo with indefatigable energy, lending an uncommon, raw quality to the music.

The five-song EP begins with “Flytrap,” a Nick Revel composition that features prog-pop vibes and the additional contributions of Joëlla Becker on cello and Marc Webster playing the drum machine and cymbals. Haeyeun Jeun’s frantic piano lines lend a sense of urgency and the drum machine creates a fun, disco beat until the flute and clarinet emerge, awash in reverb, to slow down the melody for a brief meditative moment. Then the original frenetic tempo gradually returns and and an unexpected jam session seems to break out.

Sherri Chung’s two-minute work “Ball: Rolling” stands in sharp contrast, an almost Impressionistic take on the ball’s unpredictable trajectory, while her “Clue Game: Who Dunnit’” explores the guitar and woodwinds’ expressive abilities to suggest a narrative without the aid of any words.

Compared to fivebyfive’s first album, “The Play Album” seems to actively avoid contemporary classical music’s tendency toward pretension and academic ideas in favor of popular colloquial styles and accessible sounds that can be taken at face value. No prior classical listening experience required. All are welcome.

Fivebyfive hosts a free album release event on Zoom on Sunday, Feb. 19, at 5 p.m.

Daniel J. Kushner is CITY’s arts editor. He can be reached at [email protected].