Dallas — Mark Landson is the Elon Musk of the North Texas classical music scene. The violinist, violist and composer is the energy behind some of the most innovative musical organizations in the Metroplex — and he is at it again.
His Open Classical DFW is an organization that sponsors a weekly classical open mic in Dallas (and monthly in Frisco). Do you play an instrument, or sing something from the opera, art song or musical theater canon? You can show up any Tuesday at Buzzbrews in Lakewood and play in front of an assembled audience with collaborative pianist Thiago Nascimento, a superb artist who can meet every challenge, even newly composed works with the ink still wet. The group also does a chamber music series and holiday-themed shows for Halloween and Thanksgiving.
Now Landson has another project, the New Canon Orchestra in tandem with the New Canon Project.
This bold venture sets forth an ambitious goal, nothing short of an effort to change the existing relationship between performer and audience. His revolutionary idea is to create an open two-way interaction that gives the audience input into what is on the program. He set up a site, inspired by New York City’s The Ear, in which audiences can hear a snippet of a new piece and then vote on it based one just one criterion: do you want to hear it again or not? (The Ear is marketed as The Voice for composers.)
Landson put together an excellent chamber-sized string orchestra made up of fine young players and conducted by the equally young and talented conductor Nicholas Leh Baker.
The full list of players is: Violin I: Julia Annalise Brandenburg, co-concertmaster, Marina Dichenko, co-concertmaster, Yesenia Campos Wong, and Sara Sasaki; Violin II: McClaren Hayes, co-principal, Raphaëlle Siemers, co-principal, and Jocelyn Hund Turner; Viola: Mark Landson, principal, Bella Monet, and Emily Townsend; Cello: Sebastian Kozub, co-principal, and Hua Huang, co-principal; Bass: Martin Lazo, principal.
At the debut concert on Sept. 26 at Sammons Center for the Arts, Landson featured new music whose composers resisted the onslaught of modernism and bravely continued to write in their own, basically tonal, language. The works of such composers have recently been freed from the wilderness to which modernism expelled them. Relieved audiences welcome the return with warm ovations and a willingness to give new works by such composers a listen.
The program opened with Walker Williams’ 2016 work, Vandalia: An Elegy of Appalachia. This evocative work was one of the Grand Prize winners of the aforementioned The Ear. Williams drew on his Appalachian roots to paint with characteristic music a vivid visual experience.
The next composer on the program was Grace Mary Williams (1906-1977), now almost forgotten and barely noticed during her lifetime; sadly, this was probably due to the fact that she was, well, a she. The program presented her late romantic and harmonically lush work for strings, Sea Sketches, which is very much of the musical lingua franca of the 1940’s. This is lovely work, beautifully written and displaying a mastery that should have propelled her music onto concert programs then and now.
The other work was by one of the composers that transcended the 20th century’s madness by dipping into folk material, expanding diatonic harmony with the use of additional scales and modal harmonies: Béla Bartók, represented by his Divertimento for Strings (1939).
One of the ways that 20th century composers brought new sensibilities to their inheritance was by writing new takes on historical styles. This work is a prime example of neoclassicism in both form and texture. The divertimento was a classical form that evolved from the Baroque concerto grosso. Bartók made full use of both ideas. From the concerto grosso, he contrasts small groups of instruments used separately from the full ensemble. He also makes full use of fugal techniques. This is a difficult work to play and the New Canon ensemble did a fine job of it.
Now to the hypothesis of Landson’s daring concept. The audience has already had the power to influence what is on the program — but after the fact. “I never want to hear that again”-ism can unfairly tar progressive composers whose works can eventually overcome the novelty, or even shock, that their music initially presents.
For example, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring caused a riot at its premiere, but by 1940 it had evolved into such a hit that Disney included it in his innovative film, Fantasia. There was violent and visceral reaction to modernism from the moment Arnold Schoenberg tossed out the scale in favor of his 12-tone system. It was such a sudden departure from anything that was previously called “music” that it was incomprehensible to audiences.
A more erudite theory is that, up to that point, composers followed an ever-evolving set of conventions of harmony and form that gave audiences a road map to follow as composers simultaneously expanded their palettes in a less drastic fashion. As music got more chromatic and complex in the 20th century, some composers saw that they were in a blind alley of harmonic complexity — and they revolted. Suddenly, it was all about destroying what they considered to be musical shibboleths leaving concertgoers behind, mystified by the sonic attack and yearning for a return to the classics.
In the past, audiences had little else to express their opinion about programming than staying away — and that they did in droves. When standard works, even unknown works by well-known composers, were programmed, they returned. But new works by new composers were instantly made suspect by experience. Producers noticed this judgment by its disastrous effect on ticket sales and budgets and made a drastic change of direction back to concert series epitomized by New York City’s “Mostly Mozart.” Their motto: Popular works sell tickets and new ones by unfamiliar composers don’t.
A change started with the minimalists, who may have bored the audience with their incessant repetition, but at least they didn’t assault them. The neo-romantics followed that, flooding concert halls with new takes on tonal music.
Now, anything goes. With that in mind, Landson steps out with his direct method of taking the audience’s musical temperature by the revolutionary concept of asking them first: Listen to this selection and let us know if you want it programmed on a New Canon concert.
The danger is: will it create a new canon of “pleasing music,” eschewing the innovation that locked us on Beethoven strasse in the first place? This is up to whomever chooses the short selections put online for sampling and hopefully offers a wide selection from today’s composers.