radiohead

‘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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