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Composer mixes classic and modern with Brahms v. Radiohead

Steve Hackman is set to conduct the Columbus Syphony Orchestra on Jan. 21. Credit: Courtesy of Tom Russo

Conductor and composer Steve Hackman turns classical music on its head.

Over the years, he has mixed some of the most respected pieces of classical music — borrowing from Beethoven to Bartok — with the music of pop artists such as Coldplay and Björk.

On Saturday, he’s presenting his work with the Columbus Symphony in Brahms v. Radiohead.

Hackman will showcase the very first mash-up he created with the mingling of Johannes Brahms’ “Symphony No. 1” and Radiohead’s 1997 album, “OK Computer.” The arrangement combines of the music of Brahms with the melodies and lyrics of Radiohead.

Hackman said he has been criticized for his work, with critics claiming he’s ruining classical music. He said he rejects that mindset, which he sees as a reason why people don’t attend fine arts performances.

“You got a double problem here, Classical musicians pass judgments on popular music. They don’t see it for what it really is,” he said. “But far too often when they do open themselves to some pop music, it’s not done on a high enough level, it’s not done in a way that is worthy of the musicians. From the onset they have a bias against it and when they try it, they affirm their bias.”

The primary goal of the performance is to attract fans of Radiohead who wouldn’t even think of buying a ticket to listen to a Brahms’ symphony on its own, while at the same time giving to the musicians a proper piece of music to work on, Hackman said.

“I think that Radiohead is good enough on its own, and that Brahms is good enough on its own,” Hackman said. “But I need to make the musicians feel like they are playing something that is worthy of them, and that’s why I put Brahms in it. The perfect scenario would be that having an audience leaving the theater wanting to check out that ‘Brahms guy’ and having orchestra musicians leaving wanting to listen to Radiohead.”

Karl Pedersen, Columbus Symphony Orchestra’s first viola, said he welcomes the project with full enthusiasm.

“For me personally, to combine Brahms which is one of the greatest composer who ever lived — his virtuosity, his warm rich tone, the incredible depth of his pieces — with ‘Karma Police’ and ‘Paranoid Android’ and all these distinct sounds of Radiohead, is really exciting,” Pederson said.

Beyond the pleasure of being able to mix the music of a great composer with one of the albums that has defined his time in high school, Pedersen sees this as an opportunity to grow as an artist.

“I think that going forward as musicians we’re looking forward to grow and develop creatively and any time we have an opportunity to do that out of our comfort zone, that’s when the biggest learning takes place,” he said.

Combining things that don’t necessarily belong together is what artists have been doing since art has existed, Hackman explained during a TEDx talk he gave in Pittsburg in 2016. Even Brahms was inspired by music as varied as Hungarian folk music and drinking songs that he synthesized into the music revered today. Through his arrangements, Hackman said he shows how classical music and pop music have more in common than people think.

Brahms v. Radiohead will be performed at the Ohio Theater at 39 E. State St. on Saturday. Tickets start at $31.75 including fees via Ticketmaster.   

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