Lito Henderson: What’s going on everybody? I’m Lito with MMH here with Andrew Ousley. I’d like to call him what he calls himself, “The Cryptkeeper of classical music.” I love that line, man. How you doing?
Andrew Ousley: I’m good. How you doing?
I’m good. I’m good. So man, I read a lot about you. I read about you growing up playing in rock bands. So how did you? How did you find yourself in the classical music space?
My mother was an amateur opera singer. So I had music around me and I kind of fell in love with one opera singer, Maria Callas, is one of the great opera singers of the era.
And then when I went to college, I studied philosophy. But I ended up taking a couple of random classical music courses. And I just got really into music, the sort of core like Mozart, Beethoven, all that stuff, and I didn’t want to perform it because it’s a lot of rehearsal. A lot of practice time.
But I just kind of loved listening to it. And I loved engaging with the music and learning about it. And so I just kind of dug into it from there. And then after I graduated, I got awarded a fellowship to study classical music and culture. It was kind of a project I made up in France and Finland.
And I just really looked at, like the history of those places, and the cultural history and the musical history. And where classical music kind of sat in, in the culture in both places, and then I came back and got a job with a classical record label. And I was like, let’s do it.
I started in the record business, it was the week that like, Tower Records closed, and all of the record stores started to shut down in the US and it just went into a freefall. And I just spent my years learning and adapting and trying to see the industry create itself. And so I just stuck with it. And you know, to me, it’s an art form that has a lot of negative sort of perceptional issues and stereotypes to it. And it’s in a lot of ways old-fashioned in how it operates. I just find it to be extraordinarily beautiful, like transcendentally powerful music that makes my life better. Something I like to share.
Can you give me your top five classical artists? Also, I noticed that you said ‘stereotypes’. Can you touch on that briefly?
So in terms of my Top 5, that’s a tough one. But I’ll give you five good ones. Don’t hold me to that be in my top because it changes!
1. Maria Callas singing “Un bel dì vedremo” from Madame Butterfly.
It’s like the most beautiful aria, one of the most beautiful pieces of art ever written. Absolutely heartbreaking. About a woman waiting for this guy who’s abandoned her to come back. She’s had his kid and she’s waiting for him to come back and she’s just imagining when she sees his ship on the horizon.
2. Arvo Pärt, living Estonian composer, wrote a piece called “Spiegel im Spiegel”, which is just a mirror in the mirror cello for cello and piano there’s a lot of arrangements, one of the most beautiful, simple, beautiful pieces ever written. Meditative. Powerful.
3. Beethoven, Opus 132. This is the last piece he ever wrote. He had been deaf for decades. It’s for String quartet, and it’s the slow movement he wrote after he was really sick, he had ear ringing. And he was one point he thought it was so bad that he was going to die. But he recovered. It’s this 20-minute hymn of thanks to God for his recovery and it’s just this like this world shatteringly beautiful piece.
4. Caroline Shaw “Entr’acte“. She’s a living composer, she’s my age. It’s another piece for string quartet, just magnificently beautiful.
5. Carlos Simon called “Be Still and Know.” And we actually played that in a Pepsi commercial they did in the catacombs with me. But he’s just an amazing composer; very sort of influenced by spirituals he grew up in church.
And it’s for piano, violin, and cello, and it’s just like, also really beautiful. Beautiful music is what does for me.
I’m glad you mentioned the catacombs because I have a lot of questions about it. But so first, the first quote that I read from you was, “there are a lot of people who say classical music is dead, we put it in a crypt and a catacomb to prove that it’s still alive and well.”
So I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Nas, but Nas had an album called Hip-Hop—
I was into hip-hop before I ever got into classical music. Illmatic, to me, is one of the single greatest musical statements ever made. Magnificent. Magnificent recording.
Okay, well, we get into hip-hop in a second. But as far as like, so Nas has an album called Hip-Hop Is Dead, where he is calling out the lack of originality in the genre. But in your case, you’re actually doing it in a crypt. Is it wild to you that it’s actually bringing classical music back to life, even when you’re putting in a coffin?
You know, it’s there’s definitely plenty of tongue in cheek there. But classical music, I mean, it has this long, long-standing tradition of every, like, 10-15 years, just everybody gets really worked up about how it’s dying.
And it’s never died. The music itself is timeless. It is immortal. And even the music written today, by people our age, they are writing music that will exist and will be powerful 200 years from now. There is a transcendental power to the art form at its greatest. And so the conversation of classical being dead is irrelevant in the same way that Illmatic is never going to die. That’s an immortal statement of art.
It’s more the people who support it and go to it, they’re dying, because it is catered to an older demographic, it’s catered to older audiences. So that and the marketing of it, the promotion of it, the way people talk about it is less successful. But that’s not the problem with the art form. It’s a problem with how people present and speak about the art form and the experiences they create around and so my whole, the whole premise of what we do is you take this music and we change nothing in the music, it is the same music you hear at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the same level, the same performers, same programs.
But we talk about it very differently. It’s what the piece does emotionally what it offers emotionally. And then, you know, we surround it, we put it in these unusual spaces that have amazing acoustics, amazing presences, and that are just cool spaces to be in.
And we surround it with a larger experience. We have the whiskey tasting beforehand. We have wine tastings. I’m not trying to reach certain people. I’m just trying to make people excited about this art form who might not care about it inherently. And so we get younger audiences we get people who’ve never been to classical shows. And it’s because of what we surround the music with.
So how did you? How did you actually find yourself in the crypt?
Totally random. A friend of mine who works on the pop side.
I was just talking about how, you know, I want to try to present music in different spaces. And he said, there’s some crypt, I heard about somewhere, there was some random show, there’s some like industry event, you should check it out. And I was like, that sounds interesting.
And so I basically hounded the people at the church until they let me into it. And I just thought to myself, this is the most amazing space I’ve ever been in, like an incredible space for music-making and experiencing. And so I just said to them, can we do a concert series? And they said, no.
But then I said what if I give you the money? And they were like, yeah, we’ll do that. So that was it. We started just for fun just trying it out. And it was just amazing. Everybody was there for that first show, which is like, this is an incredible space to share music, both for the musicians and the audience in this communion.
Man, I think it’s such a dope concept. And I would love to come to a show someday, like, I’d love to see it in person. Can you tell us about Angel’s Share?
So after we did a bunch of shows in the crypt, The New York Times is a big write up and I get this random email, cold email from somebody from the cemetery, Greenwood Cemetery, saying, Hi, Andrew. We’ve got a Catacomb. We’re not using.
I get a lot of weird emails, but that was a particularly weird one. But I was like, sure, let’s do it. I went to take a look. And similarly, just felt that same feeling when I got into the crypt, which is just, this is an amazing space, amazing sound. And it’s bigger. It’s this long tunnel, very narrow and long, and the heart of the cemetery. And so we just put together a season we started with a world premiere of like a fully staged opera, this crazy piece of music.
We had a string orchestra with projection map animations up and down the Catacomb. We’ve done all sorts of two pianos kind of in there at the same time. The cemetery is one of the most profoundly beautiful spaces in New York—the same people who designed Central Park—and it’s almost bigger than Central Park.
It’s like 800,000 people are buried there. And, you know, we have a whiskey tasting at sunset overlooking the Manhattan skyline, you walk through the cemetery of Twilight, there’s crickets everywhere. And then you have this really emotionally intense, focused musical experience in the catacombs. And then you walk back and it’s dark, it’s moonlit. There’s just torches guiding you back to the gate. It’s a really beautiful space to inhabit.
I read another quote from you that said, “we’re a different kind of music company and vision, we take a uniquely integrated cutting edge and proactive approach.” Can you just expound on you know, what makes it so unique?
It’s kind of like what I was saying where we really, it’s every element of the experience is thought through and a lot of older, more traditional concert presenters, like, what they focus on is the music and that’s not to denigrate them, like they put on an amazing musical experience. But the email communications before you come to the show, the program notes, the food you can get at intermission, or the coffee, it’s usually pretty crap. They don’t care about the rest of the experience.
Whereas to me, it’s everything from the moment they hit our website. What do they see? What do they read? How do I communicate when I’m sending emails? Hey, you’re coming to a crypt tomorrow, I could send a boring message with what to expect. Or I could write something that’s interesting, that’s entertaining that, again builds that rapport and that connection.
And so everything we do gets really down to the font we use in our programs, I consider all of that.
In New Orleans, we have a saying that when somebody is doing something with love with passion, you can just see, you know, just talking to you, I can feel the passion that you have for classical music. And I mean, the website was amazing. And I also read that I think you’re I think you had artists that received 10 Grammy nominations?
Yeah. Well, that’s, that’s separate. That’s my other company, where we do we do PR and marketing. And obviously, there’s a lot of overlap, but we work with some of the biggest artists in the industry.
I mean, the high high-level musicians, they’re incredible. But they do it for love, too. Like we had a guy who performs at Carnegie Hall and stuff. And he said that when he played in the crypt it was just because you’re five feet from the audience. It’s like, you’re literally there. And there’s 50 of them. And it’s this incredibly, like close space, and you feel what the performer is feeling directly, because you’ve seen them, you watch them strain to make this music. And they feel your immediate feedback. It’s like the emotional feedback comes right back to them as they’re playing.
Thank you. To switch gears a little bit, can we talk about the Burger Club?
Yeah, this is what will ultimately be on my epitaph. You just go to brgrclub.com. You sign up and get a great nickname. I think mine is ‘The Meat Marauder’.
Basically, we go and we create events at burger places, and everybody comes in, we taste the burger. But we built this app, a friend of mine has like a super high-level developer—just likes burgers—built this app where you rate it, you rate it across all these ridiculous categories like Harmonia, SNESs, and texture and taste. And then you leave a comment and people write these like, odes to the burger. It’s a combination of like Yelp and just philosophizing about the nature of burgers.
And we get these like real-time ratings of what are the best burgers in the city. We also did ‘Burgers, Bourbon, and Beethoven’, which was one of my crowning achievements. 600 people came.
We had two competing burger recipes in the cemeteries outside. We had like 12 distilleries scattered around we had musicians, jazz band, and all these classical musicians scattered all around the cemetery. And then we had this huge orchestra come and play Beethoven’s Fifth for the finale. So that was pretty sweet.
It’s not announced yet, but we’re going to rekindle that this year with ‘Hot Dogs, Houch, and Handel’.
We both share an affinity for Illmatic. Not just one of the greatest rappers alive, my personal rap GOAT. You gave us the classical top five, do you have a hip hop top five?
1. Alright, so Illmatic is probably my number one at the end of the day. I just think Nas is one of the most extraordinary poets.
2. I mean Doggystyle is a close number two though.
3. Chronic 2001 Original Chronic was amazing, but the production on 2001, the beats are incredible. And you know, it brought Eminem to the stage. And Eminem is a crazy dude, but like, on a technical level, it’s staggering the ability of that guy.
4. Blueprint. Jay Z. You know, he brings it.
Aesop Rock I think has an amazing lyrical ability. MF Doom does some great stuff. I think Killer Mike is doing some amazing work. Obviously Kendrick.
Because Music Movies & Hoops is a crossover platform. Are you a long-suffering Knicks fan?
I can’t touch the Knicks anymore man.
So last question, what’s next for you?
We got a lot of things coming. We’ve got catacombs. We’ve got the crypt. We’re expanding to a cave. We’re going to be rolling out some new spots. We’re expanding to LA. Possibly San Francisco,
So yeah, we’re basically looking to expand and create new works and commission a couple of composers that we really want to work with. So trying to really empower young composers and give them the platform to say something powerful.
I promise this is the last question is, is this your dream and do you feel like you’re living the dream now?
I didn’t grow up saying when I’m an adult I want to be putting on a concert in a catacomb, it certainly wasn’t up there with astronaut. But I love doing this, it is beautiful to create something and share it.
I go to every concert we host because I love to be in the audience as much as I love to curate them and put beauty into a world that I feel is so ugly at times. It’s so divisive, to bring people together to share and remember again what unites us rather than what divides us, and what is important rather than what is heavy.
And just reveling in transcendental beauty together it’s a gift to be able to share that, to be able to do that so I’m grateful.
Where can the people reach you?
deathofclassical.com And all the socials, Instagram, we’re on Tik Tok now, figuring out how that thing works.
It was a pleasure to meet you. I hope to catch a show. Maybe catch a burger.
Let’s do both.
Thank you. I look forward to this going out and people seeing what you have to offer.
Thank you my friend. Great to great this time with you and I’ll see you up here for a burger and a concert.