Steve Hackman is one of classical music’s most interesting maestros, and he’s bringing his rule-breaking performance, Beethoven V. Coldplay, to San Diego this month.
Photograph by Gregory Neiser, courtsey of the San Diego Symphony
Steve Hackman is the ultimate disrupter—pairing classical compositions with pop music is his speciality, and he has practically created a genre of his own in the process. Next month, Hackman collaborates with the San Diego Symphony for his Beethoven V. Coldplay concert. This is the story behind his music.
When did you first discover your love of music?
When I was 7, my parents bought a piano, and I began playing it by ear. I loved it from the very beginning. But a moment that is forever imprinted in my memory took place when I was maybe 8 or 9 years old. I was at summer camp and we were all at the pool. The counselors had the radio blasting and two songs came on consecutively: Midnight Oil’s ‘Beds are Burning,’ then Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s ‘Our House.’ Hearing those incredible songs in that idyllic summer moment somehow gave me my first glimpse of how powerful music can be, and how it can attach itself indelibly to moments in your life.
What is it about breaking down barriers between musical genres that inspires you?
When I was studying conducting at the Curtis Institute of Music, I had to hide the fact that I was a pop musician from my teacher for fear of being kicked out of school. This was representative of fairly widespread judgement of popular music by classical musicians. They thought simply because there were fewer chords in a pop song, that it was somehow inferior to classical music. On the other side of that, I couldn’t convince friends who were obsessed with music—who would follow a band across the country—to attend a classical concert. Bridging this chasm between audiences has always been a mission of mine.
What is your process for choosing which pieces to pair?
I have a running list of pieces and artists on both sides that I would like to work with. A pairing could be made for musical reasons: Bartók V. Björk, for example, were fused because they are both stunningly avant-garde, colorful and exploratory of extreme ranges of musical language. Or for narrative reasons: IGOR DAMN STRAVINSKY explores the parallels between the story of Kendrick Lamar’s ‘DAMN’ and Stravinsky’s ‘Petrushka.’ But pairing Beethoven and Coldplay actually had nothing to do with the music itself. To me, those artists represent the pinnacles of their respective genres, and their music deals with the universal, humanistic themes that every person on this planet will encounter. That was why I combined them. Making sense out of it musically was quite difficult, actually!
Where did you first experiment with these concerts?
It started at the Indianapolis Symphony. They had a series called Happy Hour at the Symphony. At first the concerts were simply light classics, preceded by a happy hour with food and drink specials. It was not getting the attendance they were hoping for, so they brought in my colleagues, Time for Three, and me to revamp the content. They gave us great artistic liberty, which was a tremendous opportunity. The first concert I did had a mini-version of Beethoven V. Coldplay on it—nothing like the full version that we will play in February—but the concert sold out. The idea of mixing classical with popular spoke to people. Indianapolis has been an invaluable laboratory of sorts; I have premiered most of the fusion works with them.
When you brought this idea to the first orchestra you collaborated with, what was the reaction of the musicians?
For several years, it was very difficult. The musicians in a symphony orchestra have dedicated their lives to the study and perfection of classical repertoire. To them (and to me, by the way), this music is the bible. And then here comes somebody who is adapting it, mutating it, defacing it (in some people’s estimation)… of course, there was great resistance. Add to that, I was quite young and a newcomer. I just had to stay with it, do the best work I could, and hope that over time, orchestras [would] realize that all of this was coming from a place of ultimate respect. The hardest part was how much it hurt that they thought I didn’t love the music like they did, that I was betraying it. Nothing could be further from the truth. But I had to let the work speak for itself, and I think it has. Feb. 15, 8pm, Copley Symphony Hall, sandiegosymphony.org
Photography by: Gregory Neiser, courtesy of the San Diego Symphony