Colorado Music Festival’s Radiohead+Brahms Mash-up Misfires
Colorado classical music organizations are embracing the summer crossover concert with Indie-fied passion this year. The Colorado Symphony Orchestra started its summer season with its rendition of Beck’s Song Reader collection, joined by local darling Nathaniel Rateliff and other guests in an out-of-the-concert-hall musical experience. On Sunday, July 7, 2013, the Colorado Music Festival, based in Boulder’s Chautauqua barn, kicked off its Mash-Up Series with an orchestrated collision of Radiohead+Brahms. Masterminded by composer/conductor Steve Hackman, the nearly sold-out event was a mash-up of Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 (1876) and Radiohead’s seminal album OK Computer (1997) in a single, continuous symphonic event that celebrated the genius of both.
The stated goal of the mash-up was to draw in new audience members, challenge old ones, and as Hackman put it, to deconstruct and reconstruct both works to “form a synthesis.” Hackman focused on the melodic and vocal elements of OK Computer, and indeed there were moments when the Brahms led seamlessly into orchestral arrangements of Radiohead with shocking ease, and the two really did form a synthesis. But by and large, the rhythmic electricity and innovation of OK Computer was lost in the lush orchestrations Hackman created, and the Brahms sounded more alive and rhythmically intense in comparison.
The CMF orchestra gave a really fine reading of the purely Brahms sections (large chunks of each movement were presented without alteration), and Hackman was a decisive conductor. Eight of the original twelve tracks on OK Computer were used, and spliced into the Brahms movements which were played in their prescribed order. Hackman did an admirable job of finding harmonic or rhythmic similarities between the two works, making the mash-up momentarily delightfully trippy, with contrasts that never felt totally out of place.
The orchestra was joined by three singers, Andrew Lipke, Bill Prokopow, and Kristin Newborn, who each performed a solo song at the opening, and provided the vocals for the Radiohead selections. Lipke’s high tenor mimicked a bit of Thom Yorke’s trademark falsetto and lithe tone, and was most effective in his solo on Paranoid Android. Prokopow used a more baritonal color to add rich harmonies throughout the evening, and gave No Surprises a soulful reading. With a wide palette of colors, Newborn had the most interesting voice, singing at times with a hushed Norah-Jones-like whisper and at times with a powerful belt. She wailed away with passion on backwards as the rest of the ensemble repeated the mantra of Electioneering with “when I go forwards you go backwards/ and somewhere we will meet.” This final segment, with the last line of Exit Music (for a film), “we hope that you choke,” leading directly into the Beethoven-esque theme of Brahms’ fourth movement was the most successful. With portions of Electioneering and the chorus of Karma Police thrown in, the orchestra played the fourth movement with vigorous and electric energy, which led the audience to a thrilled ovation.
The attempts to reinvigorate classical repertoire with new interpretations and unconventional stagings or performances are needed and admirable in a certain way. The struggle to get audiences in the doors for classical events continues, and the Mash-Up series of CMF seems set to follow the “let’s make classical the cool, counterculture thing to do” route. Whether the actual mix of Brahms and Radiohead was a success is another story. This orchestra is certainly capable of playing great standard works (like the many Russian Masters featured this season) and Symphony No. 1 had many exciting passages on this concert. OK Computer, by contrast, lost the very innovative spirit Hackman wished to celebrate, and the complex, trip-hop-inspired textures used by Radiohead disappeared beneath the lavish orchestration and amplified vocals.
A live orchestra playing Brahms with a modified tape of OK Computer might have produced a more interesting mash-up while retaining the powers of both live symphonic and recorded/electronic sound. CMF did generate a huge local buzz about the series (the free pre-show cocktail party with local food and drink vendors didn’t hurt), and has some other new works programmed in their season. But whether this mash-up did either Brahms or Radiohead justice is doubtful. The Boulder area has an intellectually curious and open-minded audience, so perhaps future endeavors to experiment with the traditional classical music format will be more successful.