‘Brahms vs. Radiohead’: classical mashup

Oregon Symphony plays a program that pairs the composer's first symphony with the band's 'OK Computer'

Many American orchestras, desperate to attract younger and more diverse audiences, now have special programs aimed at pre-retirement age music lovers. Several — in Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Colorado — have hired young conductor Steve Hackman to run them. Hackman noticed that when highly trained orchestra musicians would play the typical mix of a few tuneful classics and simplified symphonic treatments of rock songs, “In the very beginning I was juxtaposing classical and pop selections, and they often took that as a bait and switch,” the 30-something Midwest native remembers. “You’re using a popular artist to bait the audience in — and then playing our requisite Brahms. I found that the orchestra players would switch off and wouldn’t give concert their best Beethoven or Debussy. So I thought, ‘Let’s craft this in such a manner that they can’t tell when we’ve turned the corner.’”

So a few years ago, he came up with a solution: Brahms vs. Radiohead, which Hackman brings to the Oregon Symphony this Thursday, January 4, asks OSO musicians to do far more than saw away on simple background pop chords while an aging rock frontman (or worse, a pale imitation of the original) belts out the melody. Instead, he created a program that includes Brahms’s glorious first symphony, and interpolates songs from Radiohead’s classic 1997 album OK Computer performed by three guest vocalists  — with accompaniment arranged in Brahmsian style.

Conductor Steve Hackman. Photo: Tom Russo.

Hackman made an ideal instigator of such a mashup. He grew up in a Chicago suburb as a pop music fan who gravitated toward classical music relatively late, but quickly developed enough facility to win admission to Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis Institute. There he met the musicians who’d go on to form Time for Three, one of the most impressive and entertaining young ensembles who are bringing classical music into the 21st century by infusing memorized performances with rock/pop energy, enthusiastic audience engagement, and repertoire that goes beyond hoary 19th century standards.

Hackman reunited with the trio a few years later after quitting his first-step-on the ladder assistant conducting gig, disillusioned by the fact that audiences were two or three times as old as he, and that the music he was conducting offered little to listeners of his generation who’d grown up on pop. The classical world seemed disconnected from his other passion. Hackman played in rock bands, wrote and recorded his own songs, and soon began arranging songs for Time for Three. (An accomplished a cappella singer, he even made it pretty far in an American Idol competition.) Soon he was working with everyone from classical choirs like Chanticleer and the Tallis Scholars to pop musicians like My Brightest Diamond, Arlo Guthrie, Aoife O’Donovan and more.

Radiohead

Hackman’s choice of OK Computer to pair with Brahms’s symphony wasn’t random. The British band’s members boast classical training (guitarist Jonny Greenwood has scored films and written for orchestras) and its relatively complex music has long been a favorite of classical musicians like pianist Christopher O’Riley and critics including the New Yorker’s Alex Ross. In both, Hackman discerned a dark, brooding density, contrapuntal passages, harmonic similarities and other musical and emotional commonalities. His arrangements don’t mess with Brahms; instead they tailor the eight songs to the symphony’s sound world.

“The craftsmanship and technique with which a symphony orchestra approaches this music is special, miraculous,” Hackman says. “Fans of Radiohead are going to hear this music they love through a different lens. And they’re gonna see it played by one of the best bands they’ve ever seen.”

Naturally, his musical miscegenations have drawn criticism. Some classical pundits decry what they regard as a cynical attempt to boost attendance at the expense of musical integrity by mashing together disparate music that is fine on its own. Pop enthusiasts sneer at anything that smacks of striving for a high-culture imprimatur that pop doesn’t need, being a legit and sophisticated art form on its own, thank you very much. Decades of sometimes misguided attempts to bring pop music to the symphony have too often resulted in bloated, even schmaltzy arrangements that dilute or overwhelm pop music’s pure power — the worst of both worlds.

Granted, like most orchestrated rock, some songs work better than others, some of the integrations are smoother than others, and purists on both sides of the false divide between the arbitrary categories of pop and classical music will find plenty to cavil about. No one playing Radiohead who isn’t Radiohead is going to sound like Thom, Jonny & Co., and if that’s what you want to hear, you had your chance last summer when the band played Portland. Besides, hearing the Oregon Symphony play Brahms is a treat regardless of context.

Johannes Brahms

Hackman’s explicit goal is to use pop music to provide a bridge for pop fans to the classical music he also cherishes. “This is not a symphonic treatment of Radiohead’s music as much as it is a true synthesis of it with a symphony of Brahms,” Hackman says. “By the end, you will have heard the entirety of Brahms’ first symphony, and I guarantee you’re gonna be curious to hear more. I’ve had so many listeners come up to me after one of these shows and say, ‘I’m gonna go home and listen to this again.'”

It seems to be working: the shows reportedly draw younger and different audiences than a typical classical subscription concert. But he’s also “definitely found that these shows reach people who have been going to classical concert for decades but have just been waiting for something like this,” he says. ”For a loyal symphony fan they can try something that’s wonderful from a different world.”

Hackman doesn’t want to displace the originals, which he regards as equally valid on their own terms, merely to show lovers of one form that they can find much to enjoy in another. In any case, Radiohead approves. “We are incredibly honored and lucky to have their blessing with this project,” Hackman says. Undaunted, he has continued his pop/classical mashups: Drake with Tchaikovsky, Bon Iver with Copland, Coldplay with Beethoven, Bjork with Bartok, even pairing Stravinsky’s The Firebird with his own his own original music and full orchestra, electronics, chorus, singer, rapper, drummer, and synthesizer.

In contrast to old school symphonic rock — string sections sawing away on simple block chords behind pop melodies, either with or without the original singers — Hackman’s process is more of a synthesis (his preferred term). In picking pairings, sometimes he looks for connections between song lyrics and composer biography, sometimes thematic links between programmatic works and rock songs; others, like Brahms vs. Radiohead, are driven by purely musical links. He’s even created a “music brand” :STEREO HIDEOUT: devoted to busting barriers between classical and pop.

He praises the Oregon Symphony and other orchestras who have embraced that mission. “The orchestra world needs to experiment more,” Hackman says. “I would like to see much much more open mindedness as far as what is possible. I don’t know if we’re going to see the audience change until the content dictates that new hybrid audience. We need to build it. The music needs to say it doesn’t matter if you’re 15 or 75 — you can enjoy this.”

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2 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    Of course, we all realize that Brahms wouldn’t have tolerated this @&*# for even eine kleine nanosecond, ja?

  2. Jack Gabel says:

    correct and likewise realize that almost nobody cares – perhaps more intriguing is the currently hot-button issue of so-called “cultural appropriation” – might Hackman be today’s Whiteman ? e.g., https://morningsidereview.org/essay/black-rhythm-white-power/

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