‘Brahms vs. Radiohead’ comes to Kings Theater

A reimagined mashup of classical symphony and alt rock seeks to draw younger listeners to the concert hall

May 22, 2018 By Benjamin Preston Brooklyn Daily Eagle
“Brahms vs. Radiohead” mashes together alternative rock and classical music. Photos by M. Pomerleau
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How can today’s performers appeal to a younger generation? Composer, conductor and arranger Steve Hackman has an answer: smashing together the old and the new. 

“I’ve always coexisted in the classical and pop music worlds,” he said. “You could say it’s been my mission from the beginning to blur the lines and to juxtapose the transition between pop and classical music.”

The resulting hybrid, “Brahms vs. Radiohead,” is Hackman’s latest arrangement, in which he mixes late 19th century symphonic sounds with late 20th-century alternative rock. He conducted a full orchestra and three vocalists — the Stereo Hideout Orchestra — through the work Saturday night at the Kings Theater. 

In this case, Hackman made the newer tunes from Radiohead’s 1997 album, “OK Computer,” coexist within the larger structural framework of Brahms’ “Symphony No. 1 in C  Minor.” Although the Brahms symphony has its lighter moments, much of it has a somber tone—a perfect backdrop for the Radiohead album’s tech-weary moodiness. The trick, Hackman said, was getting it all to fit together.

“I paired songs and movements according to the similarities they had,” he said. “Sometimes it was melodic, sometimes harmonic, sometimes it was meter, but the list of the similarities and pairings that were apparent was short, and I had to make it work in a lot of cases.” 

For example, the first movement of the Brahms piece is in triple meter. Not a lot of pop and rock music is in triple meter, but “Homesick Alien,” one of the songs from “OK Computer,” is. 

This isn’t Hackman’s first foray into hybridized classical-pop. He has also fused Tchaikovsky and Drake, Copland and Bon Iver, Björk and Bartók. It all started, he says, with a question: Why is it that orchestras that play such fine music penned by long-dead classical composers don’t turn their attention toward good music composed more recently? Then he wondered how he could convincingly introduce modern music into the classical repertoire. 

“Anyone can arrange Radiohead’s music for a classical orchestra,” he said. “This was more looking at that music through the lens of a classical composer.”

Kéren Tayar, a musician who lives in Brooklyn, is one of the three vocalists who will be singing Thom York’s wistful lyrics. She sees Hackman’s unique format as a way to draw in people who wouldn’t otherwise go to see a symphony orchestra play, including many of her friends who came to see the show. 

“Music is all one, and I really think this is the next big step for the symphony orchestra,” she said. “I love to see people’s reactions. Ninety percent of the time, they think it’s so cool.” 

Hackman’s unique orchestral arrangement — preceded by his performance of some of his delightful original material—blended towering vocal solos and sonorous three-part harmony with the ethereal sound of a full orchestra. His score and the expert way in which it was performed showed that not only does Radiohead’s music lend itself well to symphonic play, but that the symphony is an appropriate host for new sounds with the right understanding of how they fit together. Hackman certainly “gets it,” and his hybrid creation made perfect sense against the stunning backdrop of the exquisitely restored Kings Theater. 

For their part, the trio of vocalists were — as soloists presented at the head of a symphony orchestra should be — sublime. Andrew Lipke’s vocals had a beautiful Yorke-esque quality, and Tayar’s solo lines were awe-inspiring (I look forward to following what is sure to be a stellar career). 

Hackman says that there will be purists on both sides who see his work as anathema. But in the end, he thinks people who love music will appreciate it. 

“I think hearing beloved music like OK Computer and Brahms and hearing it at this level — transformed by 60 musicians — is very emotional, and ultimately, I hope it’s transformative.”


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