Classical Music

From Weekly Open Mic to Citywide Phenomenon, Open Classical Keeps It Casual

At SMU’s Meadows Museum last week, classical music lovers gathered for the first gala for Open Classical, an organization that’s been putting on inventive and inexpensive classical music events around Dallas since 2011. The gala showcased a sampling of their events, and some aspects of the evening — the wine, the hors d’oeuvres, the skilled playing — were expected and familiar. But it included as many surprises, such as tap dancing and a comic operetta in which the prima donna sang about Wendy’s bacon cheeseburgers.

When the first violinist began his solo in Mendelssohn’s Octet, which closed the evening, a cry of “Yeah! Play it, Joshua!” rang out from the crowd, and no one clutched their pearls — perhaps because they weren’t wearing any, in fulfillment of Open Classical’s motto, “dressed down, not dumbed down.” In fact, it’s just that sort of enthusiasm for classical music that Open Classical founder and director Mark Landson and co-host and piano accompanist Thiago Nascimento are hoping to generate through their organization.

Landson and Nascimento met at Classical Open Mic at Buzzbrews, which was started by Kristen Center, a doctoral piano student at SMU. Landson plays violin, but at the time he hadn’t played in several years because he’d been focusing on his web programming business. The open mic created a platform for classical musicians to connect with each other and the broader public in a casual, low-cost way, Landson discovered, and he and Nascimento bonded over their shared excitement about the concept and its potential. When Center decided she was no longer interested in running it, they happily took it on.

“I was going through a low time in my life and looking for something to do,” says Nascimento. “I jumped on it.” Within the first year, Landson developed the idea to use the open mic as a base to build more professional events, and in June 2011, he founded Open Classical with that goal in mind. Soon he met and began dating Patricia Yakesch, a marketing professional who has worked with big brands like Procter & Gamble and Nestlé, and she lent her expertise to Open Classical as a volunteer. “When I met Mark he just had Classical Open Mic.There were maybe 30 or 40 people there and there was no tip jar or any kind of business surrounding it,” she says. “My role has been a sanity check and business mind of ‘How can you turn this into a way to pay performers and to pay people to do their art?’”

Since then, Landson’s vision for Open Classical has blossomed. In addition to the open mic there are now regular chamber music performances, called the Artist Series, as well as high-concept theater shows. Yakesch was able to book events at Klyde Warren Park, where Open Classical quickly grew its audience, and she leveraged her corporate relationships to obtain a $5,000 sponsorship for their first year there. All together, Open Classical now has more than 100 events planned for the DFW area over the next year.

Landson describes the three-tier approach he has developed — the open mic, the Artist Series and the theater shows — as a carefully designed attack on the problems he believes are threatening classical music’s future. One such problem is a perception by the general public that classical music is only for the elite few who have lots of money and education. To an extent, Landson thinks they’re right. The moneyed organizations that reign in the classical music world preference academia over being appealing and accessible to the public, and have narrowly defined the opportunities to perform and enjoy classical music.

But the music isn’t the problem. “Classical music is loved and studied by kids. They love playing in orchestra or band,” Landson says. “And there’s all kinds of money and opportunities for people when they’re growing up.” But if those kids decide to pursue a classical music career when they graduate from high school, he says, they discover a narrow career path. The only way to make a living is by earning a placement with an orchestra or winning competitions, which involves performing for old-fashioned committees. “You have to listen to the people that were all the best examples of 30 years ago on how to pass their competition, and there’s set criteria for everything,” he says. “Everything in classical music is top-down. These large organizations completely drive the conversation as to what it is to be a classical musician, how classical music is performed, what classical music is and what it means.”

Open Classical wants to create a bottom-up, stair-stepping system of opportunity that places the power with musicians and allows them to connect with the public on many different levels, and vice versa. A wealth of opportunity is necessary, because as Landson points out, “there are many more classical musicians in the DFW area than pop musicians.” Musicians themselves, Landson and Nascimento have personally reaped the benefits of the system they’ve conceived.

A full-time musician, Nascimento says Open Classical is responsible for a lot of the exposure he’s received in Dallas, particularly the open mic. “We’re there every week, we get all sorts of people and word spreads,” he says. “The next thing I know I’m getting calls from people I don’t even know.” Landson agrees that the open mic is still the key community-building event, and it’s also been their main fundraiser — the tip jars at Classical Open Mic have supplied most of their operating budget to date.
That budget is used to fund their theater shows and Artist Series. The high-concept theater shows include Night of the Living Dead Composers, with a Halloween theme, and The True (Not Exactly True) Story of Thanksgiving, a comic operetta that features a clarinet-playing turkey. They’re lighthearted entertainment intended to draw attention to Open Classical and hopefully encourage people to attend their other slightly more serious events, like the Artist Series chamber music shows.

Many of the musicians involved in the Artist Series shows are culled from the open mic — they’re the crème de la crème, so to speak. Tickets are less expensive than to traditional chamber music performances, because there’s less overhead. Rather than rent out a concert hall, Open Classical hosts them in unconventional spaces like AllGood Cafe in Deep Ellum. These locales also jibe with their unbuttoned sensibility, appealing to people who may have been intimidated by or turned off classical music’s stuffiness in the past. Open Classical also gives more performances of each Artist Series show than is traditional: two in Dallas, one in Frisco and one in Fort Worth. “My goal here is, like a rock band you rehearse and you perform that same show over and over again,” Landson says.

If they can add a few more shows to this touring route, Open Classical may be able to bring in groups from New York or California, Landson says. And eventually he hopes to establish mid-level chamber music touring routes all over the country. “For $150 per show, the Emerson String Quartet are not going to play. But that’s OK because they’re already playing big concert halls,” he says. “We’re going for the people who want to get up there. How can they organically build an audience by getting what they do out to the public beyond the area where they live?”

Plans to take Open Classical outside of Dallas are already underway. Last week Landson signed a regional director for Open Classical in Houston. “The whole idea was that we would spread this formula we’ve created, specifically how we do things, the skill sets, the organizational aspects,” echoes Nascimento.

Another hope is that Open Classical will foster new music. Landson feels that without new compositions, classical music will inevitably become irrelevant and die out. “Imagine if every single rock band on the radio today was playing covers of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. That’s what’s happening in classical music today,” he says. Comparisons to rock music keep coming up again and again, and Nascimento insists there’s something to them.

“Classical music used to be the rock ‘n’ roll of music,” he says. “It’s no joke, women would literally be throwing their underwear on stage at [pianist and composer Franz Liszt] in the 1800s. We don’t know why it became this hoity-toity thing where you have to be a Harvard graduate and wear a sweater. It’s the people’s music.”

Open Classical has grown large enough that it’s at a tipping point where it can’t accomplish its grand goals simply relying on tip jars and sporadic contributions, many from Landson himself. “Right now we have been making all of this work basically because of the sweat equity of myself and other people,” he says. “That situation needs to change for us to be able to go to the next level.” At the gala, they debuted their Patreon subscriber program which allows Open Classical to receive committed monthly donations, and their nonprofit status is expected to come through later this year, which will open the door for grants.

Once Landson and Nascimento get the Open Classical team in Houston on its feet, they plan to take the concept to Austin, perhaps as soon as this fall. After that, who knows? “We’ll go out and get another area started. We’ll just keep going,” Landson says. “We’ll be the Johnny Appleseeds of classical music.”