Fort Worth — Mark Landson and his Open Classical group have done it again—they’ve made classical music both innovative and fun, and with any luck have brought the genre to audiences who might shy away from a more traditional classical program.
The only catch—their program Friday evening at the Eisemann Center in Richardson, repeated Saturday at the Live Oak Music Hall & Lounge, wasn’t really classical at all. The first half of the program featured the local ensemble performing classical pieces that Landson arranged for jazz ensemble. Two Baroque violin concertos, played by Landson and his ensemble, kicked off the program—the Vivaldi A Minor and the first movement of the “Bach Double”—the Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, with Light Crust Doughboys violinist Marek Eneti playing the second part.
Both of these concertos are staples of the repertoire—virtually every student violinist has played them at one time or another. But Landson’s versions were no kid stuff. He replaced the Baroque continuo with jazz ensemble, creating a new—and fun!—way to experience these warhorses. An issue at the beginning of the Vivaldi made for a false start, but it was a minor flaw in an otherwise delightful performance. Marek Eneti is a fine contributor to the Open Classical stable of performers, with solid chops, great stage presence, and creative flair.
Landson also arranged four classical tunes into songs performed by the redoubtable Damon Clark, backed by the group’s jazz ensemble. The last of the four songs, based on the Intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, was a moving elegy to beloved Open Classical performer Emily Javadi, a 34-year-old killed last month by a drunk driver.
While Landson is far from the first to add lyrics to classical melodies—the musical Kismet, based on the music of Borodin, comes to mind, and Googling “classical music pop songs” produces a huge list of songs that are either based on or have used riffs from classical music— most of these songs are pop (or musical theater), not jazz. The jazz medium works well for Landson’s transformations. The songs that are most loosely based on the classical tunes, such as his songs set to the melodies of the Mozart G Minor Symphony and Beethoven’s “Für Elise,” were the most effective, while Debussy’s “Beau Soir” altered from 4/4 to 3/4 time was less effective.
The musicians recruited for this project were consistently excellent. Guitarist Michael Nesuda was an especially welcome addition to the program, as were pianist Thiago Nascimento, an Open Classical stalwart, bassist Jonathan Fisher, and drummer Jaelun Washington.
The second half of the program featured Polish jazz vocalist Grazyna Auguscik. Like Landson, she adds vocals to classical music, in her case the works of Chopin and Lutosławski. Her efforts, and those of her backing musicians, were less successful than Landson’s, however. In an area that boasts the largest jazz studies program in the country (at the University of North Texas), the bar is set high. Auguscik and her ensemble never quite vaulted it.