According to Mark Landson, "The reason people think classical musicians are elitist is because classical musicians are elitist."
As a former professional violist and current driving force behind Open Classical, a weekly open mic night for classical musicians and performers, Landson knows a thing or two about the sometimes overly serious world of classical music.
"The biggest problem," he explains, "is that for so long classical music has been run with a top-down approach, leaving the audience completely out of the process."
Think about it: if you start a band, you start by performing in small venues and then, if you're lucky and if people like you and your music, your audience grows enough that you fill bigger spaces and sell more tickets. Ideally it's the audience - the people who are actually buying the tickets - who decide whether they like what they hear or not.
In the world of classical music, the audience is generally told (by competition judges, selection committees and conservatory staff) who is good and who will get the contract, get the tour, play with the symphony or sing in the opera. We, the audience, are supposed to dutifully buy our tickets and quietly listen.
"We are hampered by the training and assumptions beaten into us for years," Landson explains of classical musicians. "For example, the idea that you need to have a certain amount of education to appreciate classical music. Even just the term appreciation is wrong. You don't appreciate music. You enjoy it. Music is about touching people and communicating emotions. Without emotion there is no music."
Landson has been pursuing alternative approaches to classical music for the last 15 years and simultaneously developing a web application business (his "day job"). His newest venture, Open Classical, is founded on a bottom-up, audience-first approach. The group is made up of talented amateurs, students, professional musicians and hobbyists who love classical music and want to earn their audiences by providing interesting, entertaining performances.
The best example of Open Classical's success is their signature event, a weekly classical open mic night held at Buzzbrews on Lemmon Avenue every Tuesday from 8pm until they get too drunk and/or tired to play (usually well after midnight). I attended one skeptically - there's nothing more cringe inducing than a bad open mic - but I was surprised by the quality of both the performances and the atmosphere.
Mark Landon and pianist Thiago Nascimento are the driving forces behind the success of these casual open mic nights. The event works because they will try anything, play anything, and play with anyone. You're a band director, doctor or student who's been dying to play that oboe concerto with accompaniment? Haven't used your trombone since college and want to dust it off? Bring your music. Thiago will accompany you and nobody will judge.
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On some nights, members of The Dallas Opera stop by after rehearsals, filling the space with stunning displays of vocal bravado and captivating the room with familiar arias. There is a consistent crowd of talented SMU graduate students from the Meadows school who come to play. The night I attended two tap dancers improvised on stage to live performances of Mozart. They messed up. They had to start over. It wasn't perfect, but they were great to watch. And really, when was the last time you saw live improvised tapping?
The best thing about Open Classical is that they aren't trying too hard to be hip or convince you that classical music is cool. When the classical establishment tries to reach out to young people, it too often comes across like your mom talking about "the rap music." Most of the musicians I heard at open mic were highly trained. The eclectic programming is entertaining because the people involved are having a blast playing together.
Open Classical is expanding beyond open mic nights. They have ongoing dinner concerts at MoMo's in the Quandrangle and recently performed some of Mark's original compositions at AllGood Café in Deep Ellum (where they'll play again on Feb. 20th). I wish they'd expand to more interesting and cozy environments (the upstairs of Lakewood's Balcony Club comes to mind). Beginning in April, they will play free concerts at Klyde Warren Park the first Thursday of Every Month.
Mark Landson knows it's a stretch to try to sell classical music to those who aren't interested, but he also knows there are plenty of us in Dallas who are closet fans - we may be lawyers with a pesky classical flute habit or band members who miss playing sonatas - but whatever the case, if you're looking for a relaxed, casual classical outlet, this is the place for you.