Neo Camerata defies labels

Classical music

April 17, 2005|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Folks attending open-mike night at The Funk Box tomorrow may be startled to find a string quartet onstage. That will be the first surprise.

Instead of Mozart or Brahms, the Dallas-based ensemble Neo Camerata will be playing original music that founder/composer/violist Mark Landson calls "new classical." Unlike traditional classical chamber music, it will be played on amplified strings and from memory.

With his Eastman School of Music training and experience as a violist in an orchestra in Spain, Landson could easily have stayed in the classical realm, but he always felt a strong pull toward pop music.

"I started rethinking the whole performance aspect of music," he says by cell phone, driving with Neo Camerata to Pennsylvania after gigs at clubs in the D.C. area. "I came up with the realization that I wanted to start a band, something like a rock band, but one that would play a new kind of classical music. And I was able to find some amazing players who fit right in."

One was his brother, cellist John Landefeld, who also graduated from Eastman and once played electric guitar in heavy metal bands. Bulgarian-born violinist Vesselin Demirev, concertmaster of the Abilene Philharmonic in Texas, signed on, too, along with another violinist and a pianist who have since left. (Two new players will join the band next month; a substitute violinist is on the group's current tour.)

Determined to provide an alternative to what he calls the "museum attitude" in classical music, Landson set out "to write a different kind that appeals to more people and is more interesting to me."

Landson combines ageless techniques of the classical genre - development of thematic material and structural cohesion, for example - with a distinctly contemporary edge. But not contemporary as in Elliott Carter or John Adams.

"It's a lot more pop- or rock-oriented," Landson says. "I sometimes use dissonance, but I write harmonies that people can gravitate to and melodies that are catchy, but that still keep the artistic spirit."

This summer, Neo Camerata will record a CD with Well-Tempered Productions, an audiophile label specializing in "innovative classical."

Some of Landson's pieces suggest the driving romanticism and soaring melodic hooks of Gabriel Faure and Cesar Franck, or another French composer, Francis Poulenc, at his jolliest. But the chord progressions wouldn't be out of place in a pop song and the rhythms have a stronger bite.

It's not easy to attach existing labels onto Landson's music. A writer for the Dallas Observer summed it simply: "Whatever you call it, it's good."

The composer doesn't shy away from grand statements about his work. "My philosophy is that it's not the audience's job to pay attention; it's the performer's job to make people want to listen," he says. "My music takes you on an emotional journey and calls for virtuosic playing. It's not classical crossover, the garbage that comes out from the major labels."

Joining the group on the current tour is singer/songwriter Sara Hamman from Austin.

Neo Camerata has collaborated with other non-classical artists, and has also opened for cellist Matt Haimovitz, a pioneer at bringing Bach to bars and nightclubs.

"My greatest dream," Landson says, "is to figure out how classical music can fit into popular culture."

Neo Camerata

Where: The Funk Box, 10 E. Cross St.

When: 8 p.m.

Admission: $3

Call: 410-625-2000

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