Since 2010, classical violinist Joel Willson has had a goal of making classical music approachable to a mass audience.
It was then that the Baton Rouge musician started performing live, improvisational group shows with artists under the moniker Spontaneous Combustion.
“The concept (behind Spontaneous Combustion) is we play completely improvised music, and these painters are engaging with us,” he said. “It’s very interactive. We get story ideas from the audience and create these sonic and visual worlds.”
Capital City residents probably know Willson for his work around town with bands such as Minos the Saint and his organization of the annual Twisted Oak Music Festival.
That latter event will celebrate its third year Friday. The festival kicks off at 7 p.m. at the River Terrace of the Shaw Center for the Arts. Tickets are $15 at the door.
This year will be special for Willson. Usually, he’s behind the scenes, curating the music and dealing with sponsors.
Not only has he done that for this year’s festival, but he also will perform twice — solo and with the aforementioned Spontaneous Combustion.
“(Twisted Oak) has become one of the main things I do,” he said. “For the past two years, I was trying to provide a platform for people to hear and perform music that’s not normally heard. I wanted to take classical and art and indie folk music to a place where people could be exposed to it and enjoy it.”
And the festival is done without the help of grants. It’s all grass-roots funded.
“I just want to prove to everybody that music is valuable, and that you can do a successful festival without music like Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber,” Willson said. “I wanted to put on something meaningful, new and fresh in Louisiana.”
The LSU graduate said it has been challenging, but he has remained optimistic.
So far, the festival has brought crowds of 200 to 300 people in its first two years. Willson is expecting a larger crowd this year.
“The mission is to champion the classical and art music of Baton Rouge,” he said. “To create a self-sustaining festival that would do that, it has to be profitable, and we have to make it engaging and exciting. The challenge was how to present that and not be dependent on an outside entity. That way, you have freedom.”
The music is a bit more experimental, too.
“I’m always pushing myself to figure out how I can make a unique experience for the listener,” he said. “Everything I do is about loving the fans and community more. This year, the musicians we’ve got. It’s a little bit out of the box.”
Rather than big, eye-catching names, Willson is relying on his musical friends. The event will see hot jazz from the Hot Club of Baton Rouge, the LSU Graduate Woodwind Quintet and the debut performance of Ruth Roland and Dave Hinson’s new band, Treble Bass Movement.
The event also will feature live art from Janene Grodesky, Neda Parandian and Heather M. Kenyon, as well as Emily Annabelle Koro’s latest works on display.
As Willson lists the entertainers and what visitors can expect this year, his voice gets louder with excitement. He starts talking about the name of the festival and how it represents the different genres and music under one roof. He’s full of pride.
“Louisiana is one of the most culturally rich places in the country,” he said. “We have jazz, Cajun music, the blues ... it’s all of that twisted together to make a gumbo here in Baton Rouge.”