Classical music in an unexpected place

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c. Edsel Little via Flickr

It’s a busy Tuesday night and not a vacant stool is in sight at the beloved West Side bar, Happy Dog. Bright red and green neon lights illuminate the black upholstery and laminated tabletops, all loaded up with fresh tater tots and Happy Dog’s namesake hot dogs.

Two televisions hang above a long wooden bar—it’s the Cleveland Indians, clinging to a lead against the Boston Red Sox. But for many customers, the focus in the room isn’t on the intense baseball game or the mountain of comfort foods displayed before them.

Two violinists, Hanna Landrum and Ariel Clayton Karas, stand center stage, commanding attention as they put the finishing touches on a stunning rendition of French composer Jules Massenet’s “Meditation.” They smile as they play, each absorbed in the happiness of the crowd, graciously bowing to hearty applause.

Tuesday, Aug. 21 marks the tenth anniversary of Happy Dog’s inception. The bar is well known not only for its food but also for a wide variety of live music and entertainment. The bar’s University Circle branch reopened in 2014 after on and off closings. Although more associated with rock and punk performances, Happy Dog also has a strong and long standing relationship with the Classical Revolution Cleveland (CRC), a group that plays there every third Tuesday of the month.

Clayton Karas, the director of the CRC, describes the group’s mission as “taking classical music off the pedestal.” An established musician with 20 years of experience, Clayton Karas praises the genre as a form with timeless appeal and an ability to speak to everyone and anyone.

“I remember a soloist, who, when the airline lost his luggage, ended up playing in jeans and a flannel shirt surrounded by tuxedos,” said Clayton. “That made him much more relatable.”

Although her passion lies in orchestral performance, Clayton enjoys smaller, more intimate venues like Happy Dog. Performances feel more interactive with the audience and less like a school assembly.

“Engaging an audience the way we do, in a bar, casually, with really straight forward introductions and explanations, is both effective at informing and presenting our art,” Clayton Karas said.

Rob Kovacs, a Cleveland-based pianist and composer, joined the CRC for several pieces. He emphasized the hard work that musicians undertake to master their craft and the payoff of sharing their passion with receptive audiences. He encouraged newcomers to the genre to come with no preconceived expectation of what defines classical music.

“[CRC is] nontraditional, a welcome takeaway from the seriousness of music,” said Kovacs.

Each successive performance put classical music’s versatility on full display. All sorts of musicians, ranging anywhere from opera singers to pianists and cellists, performed everything from the theme song of the NES game “Castlevania 2” to a rendition of the late Aretha Franklin’s “Think” for a diverse and excited audience of both young and old.

“I love that dichotomy [of] people in the back, talking about sports, mixed with people in the front listening to the music,” said Clayton. “I love it around Christmas time, when it’s snowing, the atmosphere feels so raw …it becomes more pedestrian.”