These days, classical music is necessarily an acquired taste. Unless you study music, you're probably not exposed to it much. The songs that dominate the charts are manufactured like Doritos: They're small bites of sound engineered to stimulate pleasure centers but also to be bland and forgettable, so they can be consumed over and over and over. Unlike Mozart, Katy Perry is immediately accessible to a generation with attention spans frazzled by the Internet and a desperate fear of boredom, myself included. But immediate gratification is never the most satisfying or long-lasting, and with a nagging awareness of that fact, I resolved to broaden my palate in 2015, beginning with classical music.
There are at least a couple of organizations in Dallas hoping to capture a fresh, young audience for classical music. For the last few years, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra has hosted a series called ReMix, which offers shortened performances, plus a cocktail hour with hors d'oeuvres. But last week, I took my first baby step with a different group that's even more low-key. Open Classical was founded by violinist and composer Mark Landson, and they put on classical music events all over Dallas. They're perhaps best known for their classical open mics, which happen at Buzzbrews on Lemmon Avenue every Tuesday. On this particular night, Open Classical was putting on the first in a four-part series called "Journey of Light" at AllGood Café in Deep Ellum.
It was a cold and rainy evening and AllGood was empty when I arrived. But as the 8 p.m. performance time neared, people filed in; in the end, almost every seat was occupied. I say Open Classical is more low-key than ReMix because, not having been to a ReMix event, I doubt it could get more relaxed than listening to Mahler while you eat meatloaf and cheesecake and stare at twinkling chili pepper lights. This was exactly my speed. (Pro tip: It's hard to feel out of your element when you have a mouth full of cheesecake.)
The hour and a half-long program consisted of five compositions and explored themes of light, beginning with Mahler's stirring Quartet in A minor for Piano and Strings -- "the dark ray" -- and lightening from there. The four-piece ensemble of musicians consisted of violinist Chloe Trevor, cellist Joseph Kuipers, pianist Thiago Nascimento and Landson on violin and viola. All of the classical composers I can name are dead white guys, so one thing I found particularly interesting about the evening was the introduction of new compositions, three of which were by composers in attendance. Following Mahler was "Taken-Blessed-Broken-Given" by Margaret Barrett and then "Tango Notturno" for Cello and Piano by Adam Eason.
Landson met Eason at one of the Buzzbrew open mics, where Eason often shows up to work through his recent compositions. It was cool to see how their events interact to foster new classical music. Landson commented on how remarkable and essential it is to "get people to pay money to listen to new classical music."
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He also made an interesting point about the difficulties and rewards of performing new classical music. Classical musicians already know how to play the famous pieces, it's already established how they're done. When playing a piece you haven't heard hundreds of times before, you have to "discover the inner meaning of the new piece," Landson says. And you could see the musicians feeling their way through each piece of music. I enjoyed watching their facial expressions.
Having the composers in the room created an interactive atmosphere in which audience members could ask questions about the creative process, the significance of a composition's name or some other element of the music that was unclear. "What makes a tango a tango?" one concertgoer asked, which led to a quick tutorial about the tango rhythm. The mood was casual and welcoming, but the music was beautifully executed and it worked surprisingly well in the space. A piece composed by Landson, "Troubled Souls" for Violin and Piano, was also performed, and the evening closed out with Finale from Piano Quartet in D minor by William Walton.
I entered the evening feeling that my resolution to listen to more classical music was homework. But in the course of it, I was reminded of what should have been obvious: Classical music is entertainment. I heard longing, loss and joy rendered into sound. Classical music is challenging, yes -- my patience and focus were tested, and I think, improved -- but it isn't esoteric. It's for anyone who knows what it feels like to be human; the music translated that experience in a way that Top 40 simply can't. If an alien ever visits me, and he wants a tour of planet earth, I'll take him to hear a live performance of Mahler. And buy him a slice of cheesecake.
You can catch the next performance of Journey of Light at Times Ten Cellar in Lakewood (6324 Prospect Avenue) on February 6. Admission is $20. Visit openclassical.org for more information and a full schedule of events.