Musical Adventures with five by five

Left to right: Haeyeun Jeun, Marc Webster, Laura Lentz, Ken Luk, Marcy D. Bacon, Eric J. Polenik. Photo by Robert Cooper.
by Nancy E. McCarthy

Fivebyfive is a Rochester-based ensemble of six highly accomplished musicians performing adventurous, contemporary music. The group’s mission is to engage audiences in the collaborative spirit and creativity of today’s chamber music.

For centuries, chamber music was played in homes (in a room or “chamber”) by small groups performing classical compositions for guests. Today’s chamber music is most commonly heard in concert halls and other music venues. The term describes any music for small ensembles. The repertoire can encompass masterworks, modern compositions, jazz, folkloric genres
and more.

“The idea of genres is disappearing,” said Laura Lentz, fivebyfive’s flutist and artistic director. “It’s important for classical groups to redefine what classical music is.”

Fivebyfive is helping to turn the definition of chamber music on its ear by commissioning and performing music by the most forward-thinking composers, advocating for creators who are underrepresented in the field and collaborating with a wide range of partners. They also make a point to interact with their audiences in unexpected ways.

“Five by five” is a radio broadcasting phrase that defines the strength and clarity of a signal.  It means to be heard “loud and clear.” There couldn’t be a more apt descriptor for this group.

A big idea

  In 2015, Lentz wanted to start a chamber group in Rochester. She had just returned from Switzerland where she worked with the new music ensemble eighth blackbird in a performer/composer exchange.

Lentz was particularly inspired by the music of critically-acclaimed composer Missy Mazzoli. She first reached out to Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra bassist Eric Polenik to explore putting together an ensemble to perform Mazzoli’s composition “Magic with Everyday Objects.”

Polenik was instantly enthusiastic. “I had listened to it and absolutely fell in love with the piece. I told her ‘Rochester needs to hear this,’” he said.

Polenik’s string chamber group, Gibbs & Main, had stopped performing. He missed playing with a smaller ensemble and looking to fill a creative void. Lentz and Polenik began to brainstorm about the type of group and music they envisioned. Polenik invited pianist Haeyeun Jeun to join them, explaining their interest in playing contemporary music. Jeun accepted immediately.

“I thought there will always be chances to play masterworks with a traditional ensemble but a rare chance to play with this charming instrumentation,” Jeun said. “I feel very lucky to play with these good friends and work with so many wonderful composers around the world.”

Their unusual instrumentation was, and still is, flute, bass, piano, clarinet and electric guitar. “It’s not a traditional mix of instruments but modern chamber groups come in all shapes and sizes,” said Marc Webster, who has been with the group in various capacities since 2016.

Fivebyfive’s debut concert took place on February 6, 2016 in the Allen Chapel on the Rochester Institute of Technology’s campus. The group performed the Mazzoli piece along with other contemporary works arranged for their instrumentation.

The players

All fivebyfive members are busy professional musicians and/or music teachers. The backgrounds and influences that the players bring to the table from their other projects make fivebyfive a richer experience for each other and for their audiences.

“The dynamic of this group is just great. Everyone is super creative, willing to take chances and listens to each other,” said Polenik. “I love new music, experimenting with music, and this feeds my soul.” 

In addition to co-founding members Lentz, Polenik and Jeun, the other musicians in the sextet are Marcy Bacon, clarinet; Ken Luk, electric guitar; and Marc Webster, recording engineer, keyboardist and composer. Webster, who owns Blue on Blue Recording Studio in Rochester, plays organ and electronics on fivebyfive’s current breath & fire album and is often on stage with the ensemble on keyboard, playing video clips and working the mixing board to provide audio effects and enhancements.

When Covid started, Webster began working more with fivebyfive, using recording as a means to share their music during lockdown. This eventually led to Webster becoming a full fivebyfive member. “We aren’t aware of any other chamber group that has a recording engineer as a member,” said Lentz. The recording process helped to expand fivebyfive’s artistic voice and, as the pandemic ebbed, recording and releasing music became an important tool of creative expression.

In 2022, the group was awarded a three-year New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) grant and they were able to invest more significantly into recording music. Fivebyfive has released three albums: Of and Between (2021), The Play Album (2023) and breath & fire (2023).

As artistic director, Lentz is responsible for the overall artistic vision of the group and creating the various concert programming to bring that vision to their audiences. Because of their uncommon instrumentation and commitment to playing new music, fivebyfive’s repertoire requires special arrangements for existing works or they commission original compositions.

Marc Mellits, a renowned and prolific composer, is a frequent collaborator. He created an arrangement for fivebyfive of his piece “Dreadlocked” for breath & fire. “I love blending electric guitar with acoustic instruments and often take instruments more comfortable in rock and incorporate them into my own music,” Mellits said.

Webster assumed a new role as fivebyfive’s executive director in 2023.  He works with Lentz to maximize the programming that the group can deliver using their available financial resources. Fivebyfive, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization since 2017, primarily operates from grants, ticket sales and donations.

Percussionist Emma Gierszal, its current board president, has a close history with fivebyfive. Gierszal became the group’s production intern while pursuing her master’s degree at the Eastman School of Music in 2019. She went on to serve on its advisory board in 2021 and then joined the board of directors in 2022. Gierszal characterizes fivebyfive as a trailblazing ensemble particularly in its programming of creative and inclusive concerts.

“Fivebyfive includes the audience in the music-making process whether through inviting concertgoers to sing along, walk among the performing musicians or even create art during the concert,” Gierszal explained. “Seeing fivebyfive perform live has all of the familiarity of a regular concert setting, but still turns the paradigm on its head a different way each time.”

Innovative programming

As part of fivebyfive’s ongoing 2023-24 concert season “Dichotomies,” the group is presenting Light & Dark: Eclipse Music: a one-of-a-kind concert experience that celebrates the awe and wonder of the forthcoming 2024 total solar eclipse. As the path of totality includes Rochester, fivebyfive will debut its eclipse-inspired program in the Strasenburgh Planetarium at the Rochester Museum and Science Center on January 20 and 21, 2024 (the actual eclipse is April 8).

Five new pieces will be performed live with immersive video on the planetarium’s dome. Mellits was one of the composers tapped to create an original composition (simply titled “Eclipse”). Another new work, “In the Path of Totality” by New York composer Jessica Meyer, was funded by a NYSCA Support for Artists grant. The other groundbreaking composers/arrangers are Julie Herndon and Kamala Sankaram.

The group’s next concert season, “Our Stories,” kicks off in fall of 2024 with a Fantasy & Reality program featuring original music and poetry from Latin America. While each season has its own theme, fivebyfive’s long range vision supports the overall evolution of modern classical music by commissioning new works, introducing pieces that challenge musical boundaries and sharing their love of this music with more audiences.

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Meet the Musicians

Flutist Laura Lentz
co-founded fivebyfive and is its artistic director. Lentz released her debut solo recording Jacob’s Triptych in 2023 with two new works dedicated to her by internationally known Dutch composer Jacob ter Veldhuis (AKA JacobTV). She is currently working on a recording project with Norwegian composer Kari Telstad Sundet and a consortium project of a new work for flute and strings by composer Marc Mellits. A dedicated teacher, Lentz presents her new book Modal Flute Warmup at flute fairs and universities, holds flute masterclasses and workshops across the country, instructs a large, private studio of local students and is on faculty at Eastman School of Music teaching a course designed to empower students to seek funding for their creative projects.

Bassist Eric J. Polenik, co-founded fivebyfive and has been a Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra member since 2005. Polenik performed on the orchestra’s Grammy winning album, American Rapture. He began to play the double bass at age 16 and, four years later, performed with the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra as its Principal Bassist. Polenik regularly performs with many ensembles in Upstate New York including the Buffalo Philharmonic, Slee Sinfonietta at University of Buffalo, Rochester Oratorio Society and Finger Lakes Opera. He was a member of the eclectic string chamber group Gibbs & Main. Polenik is a professor of bass at Roberts Wesleyan University and a member of the string faculty at Hochstein School of Music. He regularly serves as a coach for collegiate and youth orchestra programs.

Pianist Haeyeun Jeun, a fivebyfive co-founding member, is an accomplished performer in the United States and Korea, her homeland. Jeun’s achievements include a silver medal at the 2013 Seattle International Piano Competition, second prize in the 12th Osaka International Piano Competition, first prizes in the Eastman-Hamamatsu, Piano Society of Korea and the Music Association of Korea competitions. She was chosen by the Eastman piano faculty to represent the school at the 2007 Hamamatsu International Piano Academy in Japan. As a soloist, she made her orchestral debut at age 9 with the Busan Philharmonic and Chanwon Philharmonic Orchestras. She has performed with other prestigious orchestras such as the Prime Phil Orchestra and Vio-LINK-oto Ensemble. Jeun teaches at Finger Lakes Community College and is organist and accompanist at Greece United Methodist Church.

Clarinetist Marcy D. Bacon is an active performer with the Wilmot Wind Quintet (WWQ) and woodwind quintet Fem Vindar. Bacon has played with the Rochester Chamber Orchestra, Rochester Oratorio Society Orchestra, Rochester Lyric Opera, ensemble.twenty.21 and the Western New York Chamber Orchestra. She teaches at Nazareth College, RIT and Eastman Community Music School and has presented sessions on wind quintet literature with her WWQ colleagues at the NY State School Music Association Winter Conference and the National Association for Music Education All-Eastern Conference. She has also presented audiation sessions pertaining to early childhood and instrumental applications. Bacon can be heard on the Oregon Catholic Press label playing sacred music and compositions by Jacob Avshalomov.

Guitarist Ken Luk frequently appears as a soloist and with the Janus Guitar Duo and Trio Ghidorah. Luk performs with Rosa Boemia, Forró Estrelas do Norte, Mosaic Foundation, the Eastman Gamelan Ensemble and the Rochester Mandolin Orchestra. Performance highlights include Experiencing Villa-Lobos Festival, Live from Hochstein, Rochester Fringe Festival, The Great Blue Heron Festival and Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance. Co-founder of Rochester Classical Guitar and the Rochester Mandolin Orchestra, he is also an avid arranger and was a finalist in the 2017 Roland Dyens International Arrangement Competition. Luk also serves on the board of the Classical Mandolin Society of America.

Recording engineer, keyboardist and composer Marc Webster is fivebyfive’s executive director.  Webster has performance and production experience in a wide range of musical genres including classical, film score, jazz, rock, gospel, blues and rap. As a composer his compositions have been featured nationally on the Performance Today radio program and his movie soundtrack “Fury” was a semi-finalist at the Moondance Film Festival. Commissions include music for fivebyfive, Gibbs & Main String Quintet and the Eastman Youth String Orchestra. Webster owns and operates Blue on Blue Recording Studio with a special focus to work with classical musicians and composers to create albums, music videos, concert recording and other kinds of audio and video artistry.

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