OK, Conductor: “Brahms v. Radiohead” Mashup Rocks the Orchestra

Curtis alum Steve Hackman returns to lead the Philadelphia Orchestra with the symphony’s most unique — and not uncontroversial — offering this season.  

Catch “Brahms v. Radiohead” on May 3rd / Courtesy of The Philadelphia Orchestra

When Curtis grad Steve Hackman conceived of his innovative “Brahms v. Radiohead” show some nine years ago, he knew it wouldn’t be for everybody. The concert, which explores the common ground between Johannes Brahms’s First Symphony, completed in 1876, and Radiohead’s album OK Computer, completed more than 120 years later, elicited some strong opinions. The Guardian’s music critic aimed for the jugular, calling the concept “cynically conceived” and an act of “breathtaking cultural violence,” as if Hackman had taken a Sharpie to the Mona Lisa.

But Hackman actually has respect for the purists and even counts himself among them. And he’s quick to point out that the concert doesn’t replace the source material. Nothing was ruined. The Brahms has survived. “I understand their standpoint of ‘This is perfect as is,’” Hackman says. “But the Brahms First Symphony is still there anytime you want to hear it, with any orchestra in the world.”

And “Brahms v. Radiohead” has survived as well. Hackman has led major orchestras around the world in it over the past decade, incorporating three singers, including Philadelphia music-scene fixture Andrew Lipke, providing rich, moody interpretations of Radiohead songs like “Paranoid Android” and “Karma Police.”

Along the way, the show has helped Hackman carve out a niche for himself in the underpopulated world of pop-classical pairings: Bartók with Björk, Tchaikovsky with Drake, Beethoven with Coldplay. He prefers to call them “fusions” rather than “mash-ups,” hoping to convey the thoughtfulness with which these concerts have been constructed.

Lipke has been with the “Brahms v. Radiohead” project from the beginning and has been impressed with how a symphony orchestra can perform the Radiohead portion flawlessly on the first attempt. But are the classically trained orchestra members generally on board with the concept, we wondered?

“It always runs the gamut,” Lipke says. “There’s people who get that it’s not supposed to be overly serious and heavy. Nobody’s saying Brahms would be better if it had Radiohead in it.”

Despite its strong Philly connections, “Brahms v. Radiohead” has yet to be performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra, an oversight Hackman looks forward to correcting on May 3rd at the Kimmel Center. “Those years in Philadelphia, they changed my life,” he says.

Though he’s toured the world with his fusion shows — and collaborated with the likes of Kanye West, Carly Rae Jepsen and Doja Cat — playing with one of the country’s “big five” orchestras in his former hometown is special. “To be able to finally text and call my friends in Philly and say, okay, it’s finally happening … ”