Interested in improving your quality of life? Classical Pairings podcast host and musicologist Nicholas Johnson offers this shortcut: turn on some music and mix a cocktail.
Words by Crystal Hammon
If Nicholas Johnson’s progress in baseball had gone as well as his saxophone lessons, he might be somewhere in Missouri, coaching sports in a public school. Instead, the Springfield, Missouri native and St. Louis Cardinals fan (he seldom misses watching or listening to a game) decided to pursue music during his freshman year of high school.
That route took him on a global academic jaunt, wallowing in the history of renaissance and modern music. He earned a master’s degree in musicology at the University of Maryland, a doctorate at The Ohio State University and landed in 2014 at Butler University, where he is assistant professor and director of graduate studies in the School of Music. His popular classes explore how people express truth, love, desire and fear through pop, hip hop and rock music.
Around Indianapolis Johnson is known for his incandescent pre-concert lectures and classical music program notes. “I love it when people come up to me after a concert and tell me that my talk gave them a better experience with the music,” he says.
He’s a down-to-earth guy, but make no mistake: Johnson knows his way around an archival library. During his graduate studies, Johnson earned two consecutive research grants, one from the Fulbright Commission, the other from the Mellon Foundation. Those grants led to almost two years in Vienna, Austria, where he did research at the Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek, one of the world’s best early music archives.
It all sounds terribly erudite until you consider Johnson’s daily routine in Vienna. “I spent every day in the archives from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.,” he says. “I would transcribe 500-year-old manuscripts and philosophy books all day. Two or three evenings a week, I would buy a standing room ticket for the opera for three or four euros. At intermission, I’d go get a sausage and red wine, or a beer. Rinse and repeat. It was sort of the best time I’d ever had.”
Two years in Vienna was enough time for Johnson to fall in love with opera. He also developed an appetite for travel, rivaled only by his appreciation for great food and drink.
Johnson folds all those passions into his role as host of Classical Pairings, a podcast that tempts everyone to give classical music a good listen. If you like to eat and drink (and who doesn’t?) and you’re fond of music, Classical Pairings might be your idea of nirvana.
Produced by Classical Music Indy (CMI), the podcast is the audio equivalent of A Moveable Feast. Johnson facilitates clever banter between two creative personalities—a local classical musician or composer, and a leader from Indy’s food and beverage industry.
Whatever the epicurean guest is serving, Johnson and a musical guest choose a piece of classical music to accompany it. Their improvisational approach matches the podcast’s informal take on classical music. “I’ve heard that people think it’s all planned, but it’s not,” he says. “We just make it up on the fly. We meet for the first time, and we’re taping five minutes later.”
Now in its second season, Classical Pairings aims to expand two ideas that surfaced during Season One. The first is a live concert at a local venue. These events feature shorter music, lots of breaks and plenty of space for people to talk and taste together. Last fall, for example, Classical Pairings produced a live concert at Chilly Waters Brewing Company, a Fountain Square brewpub. The audience quaffed a flight of beers paired with classical music performed by pianist and music sociologist Joshua Thompson. There’s nothing quite like a live performance, but if you miss a concert, you can listen to the podcast later.
“My passion for the project is increasing people’s exposure to the arts in a way that’s positive for them and for the city’s musicians,” he says of the ticketed events. “We’re hoping to do more live concerts, and I love that, in part because musicians are getting paid for the gigs. We hope you taste something you’ve never tasted, hear something you’ve never heard and have fun talking to the person next to you.” The coronavirus pandemic has delayed these concerts for now, but in the meantime, Johnson has supported local breweries and distilleries by creating new cocktails with their products at home paired with a local artist’s musical work.
Once travel restrictions are lifted, Classical Pairings will continue to follow Johnson’s travels such as his most recent trip to Vienna, Austria. He’s typically there each summer on a two-part mission, first as faculty sponsor of a three-week, study-abroad program for music students at Butler University each May. That’s followed by a three-week stint as musicology director for the Vienna Summer Music Festival.
Johnson is an effective advocate for CMI’s goal of drawing new audiences to unpretentious experiences with classical music. “Concerts used to be fun, but in many places, people who love classical music love it so much that they keep everyone else out,” he says. “I understand the beauty and the glory of an hour and a half symphony with no talking and pure contemplation, but that’s not for everyone. For someone who isn’t used to a traditional concert format, the experience can be really draining.”
Hosting the podcast is a dream project—one that aligns so well with Johnson’s interests that he readily admits he could never have planned it himself. This much is true: Classical Pairings was a random opportunity stemming from Johnson’s connection with CMI’s Assistant Director of Community Engagement Eric Salazar. The two friends got acquainted through their shared hobby of roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons and Star Wars.
“Eric was at my house and noticed that I had an extensive bar,” Johnson says. Salazar later approached Johnson about writing a column for CMI’s NOTE Magazine. The idea for the first column was to pair beer with classical music. “I was skeptical, but I like Eric, so I thought, ‘I’ll give this a try.’” The column was so popular that CMI invited Johnson to develop similar content in a podcast format.
An avid traveler who goes abroad as often as possible, Johnson believes in the power of travel to broaden one’s perspective, to create empathy and to bring the world together. Recalling how changed he felt by his first international trip, Johnson feels sorry for Butler University students who will miss the defining experience after the May 2020 study abroad program was canceled due to the coronavirus.
“I do believe that the world is such a beautiful, and confusing, and complex, and difficult place, but that every human has the same desires,” he says. “I think the only way to a more peaceful, artistic world is for people to travel, to understand how other cultures work, and to appreciate the life experiences of other people.”
At home in Broad Ripple, Johnson and his fiancée, operatic soprano Chloe Boelter, replicate their international experiences with food, cocktails and music influenced by the countries they’ve visited. “Chloe brought home some bottles of spirits from the Czech Republic, and we don’t know what they are,” he says. “We’ve both been to Prague, so we’ve been having contests to come up with recipes that taste like Prague in some way.”