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When Mozart And The Beatles Become One: Conductor Steve Hackman On Creating Hybrid Compositions

Steven Hackman
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The Beatles will cozy up to Mozart when the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh performs its Defying Gravity program at Point State Park Monday evening as part of this year’s Three Rivers Arts Festival.

Steve Hackman will conduct the Choir. He also composed and arranged the program, which pairs contemporary artists like Radiohead with classical composers like Brahms. Hackman began such work with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra as the creative director of Fuse@PSO, a position created for him.

Hackman said both classical and popular music have engaged him throughout his career.

“Wanting to combine them and to forge ahead into this hybrid world was just borne out of making both kinds of music and not subscribing to the belief that they should be so quarantined from one another,” Hackman said.

He said The Beatles began to blur the lines between classical and popular music early on, asking producer George Martin to compose a Bach-like keyboard part for the bridge of the song “In My Life.”

“Can you really say that’s a pop song and it’s not classical at all, and it’s strictly pop?” Hackman asked. “It’s obviously already a hybrid. But we’ve sort of lost that classical injection into popular music these days, as well as I don’t know that we’ve got the popular music coming into the classical side very effectively. So those are the things I’m trying to address.”

He said the job of an artist is to synthesize varied styles and techniques in a compelling and interesting way. Once he identifies a composer he wants to combine with a contemporary artist, Hackman will immerse himself in both artists’ work until synergies begin to occur to him.

“I’ll be at the gym, and I’ll think, ‘Oh my gosh, this might go here,’” he said. “It’s about finding elements in common. That could be a chord progression, that could be a melody, that could be a driving rhythm.”

Hackman said the pieces have received a favorable response from audiences, while noting that those who attend are already predisposed to the idea.

“The ones who think it’s sacrilege to reinvent Brahms or Copland or Bartok, they’re not going to come,” he said.

The people the program outrages question the concept itself. Hackman said people view some of the pieces as sacred, which he understands. But he hopes those who experience the program will understand it’s well-intentioned.

“To think in one moment you could be experiencing an amazing 20th century classical piece like Bartok (and) this incredible avant-garde artist Bjork … It is kind of overwhelming and I guess that sonically I really want to move people,” Hackman said.

He also hopes the program will expose fans of the contemporary artists to the classical compositions their songs accompany.

“This is what musical artists have been doing for almost 1000 years,” Hackman said. “Taking pieces and applying them to different mediums with different techniques, whether it’s renaissance composers taking folk tunes and creating masses out of them or classical composers taking folk pieces and making arrangements and variations.”

More Essential Pittsburgh segments can be heard here.

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