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‘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.”

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MusicWatch Weekly: classics meet currents

Oregon Symphony, Project Trio and others mix modern sounds with venerated classics

Oregon music gradually awakens from its holiday hangover, er, hibernation this week, serving up a few appetizers to whet your appetite for the ample main courses to follow in coming weeks. Feel free to recommend other music performances in the comments section below.

A couple of major Portland symphonic spectaculars kick off 2018, starting with the Oregon Symphony’s Brahms v. Radiohead show Thursday, January 4 at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Composer/conductor Steve Hackman has recently contrived a series of fascinating fusions pairing a classical masterpiece with a contemporary pop music classic. He weaves orchestral arrangements of contemporary songs into full performances of symphonic works so that both inhabit the classical masterpiece’s sound world. In this performance, the Oregon Symphony plays Brahms’s complete 1876 first symphony and orchestral versions (plus a trio of singers) of songs from Radiohead’s classic 1997 album OK Computer. Stay tuned for my ArtsWatch preview. Note: neither Brahms nor Radiohead actually appear.

Project Trio, the charismatic Brooklyn based cello, bass and beatbox flute threesome, has electrified audiences in past Portland performances (not to mention 80 million YouTube viewers) with their energetic blend of audience friendly European classics, covers of rock, hip hop and jazz, and compositions by all three members. Thursday’s show at Astoria’s Liberty Theatre features music by Bach (the famous flute arrangement by Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson), Charlie Parker, Prokofiev’s Peter & the Wolf, Brahms and more, including their own compositions. On Sunday’s Friends of Chamber Music concert at Portland’s Newmark Theatre, they join members of Portland’s Metropolitan Youth Symphony for orchestral and chamber music, including most of the above music plus works by Strauss, Tchaikovsky, and their own originals.

Friends of Chamber Music brought PROJECT Trio to Portland’s Old Church in 2014. They’re performing this week with Portland’s Metropolitan Youth Symphony. Photo: John Green.

Speaking of contemporary sounds, Monday’s Fear No Music concert at Portland’s Old Church, 1422 S.W. 11th Avenue, features “Locally Sourced Sounds IV,” the Portland new music ensemble’s annual showcase of contemporary music by Oregon composers. Instead of focusing exclusively on veteran Portland composers, this edition includes new contemporary classical music by a Portland State student, a Grant High student (and participant in FNM’s valuable Young Composers Project), a Portland composer better known as a radio announcer (All Classical’s Robert McBride), and a Corvallis composer/violinist, Jayanthi Joseph. The show does boast a new work by one of the city’s most vital experienced composers, Lewis & Clark College’s Michael Johanson.

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‘Dracula’ and Third Angle reviews: two faces of Philip Glass

A pair of Portland concerts celebrating the composer's 80th birthday display his dramatic and classical styles

My first encounter with the music of Philip Glass was, appropriately, in the theater. The community college I attended after high school put on a selection of one-act plays from David Ives’ recently published All In The Timing. Between acts there would be music, and before “Philip Glass Buys A Loaf of Bread” the sound guy would play a minute or two of “Act III” from The Photographer. I’ll never forget the way that glorious, electrifying music filled the wings of the small theater like the angels going up and down Jacob’s Ladder. Shortly thereafter I acquired a copy of Glassworks and was hooked for life.

Every new recording from the library or used record store was like discovering a new world. A cassette of the 1995 Kronos Quartet recording of four Glass quartets kept me company in my first year away at college. Satyagraha, plucked more or less at random off a shelf in the Costa Mesa public library, became my constant companion on more than one choir tour, shaping my musical imagination in ways that are still unfolding. And I recall one memorable winter break driving around Northern California listening obsessively to a single cassette’s worth of Einstein with my brother, who had just discovered Glass in college.

Philip Glass

Glass repeatedly calls himself a theater composer. That’s certainly where he’s spent most of his energy, and a concern for narrative drive paired with a strong dramatic voice is the defining feature of his best work. Even his more abstract concert pieces—the seven string quartets, the eleven symphonies, the various concerti, and so on—carry this theatrical stamp. It was American conductor Dennis Russell Davies, a longtime Glass advocate, who persuaded the composer to make the jump from opera to symphony, commissioning ten symphonies to date. It was just Portland‘s good luck to hear these two sides, dramatic and abstract, in concerts only a few weeks apart this fall.

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