Meet the New Creative Director of the ISO’s Happy Hour Series

The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra (ISO) kicks off its 2019-2020 Happy Hour at the Symphony series on Thursday, September 12 with one of the most ambitious works since the series began. The one-act concert features Firebird: Remixed | Response, a breathtaking fusion of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet, The Firebird, with a Stravinsky-based concept album written by Steve Hackman, the new creative director for the ISO’s Happy Hour series. The concert includes a rapper, a singer, a drummer and a female chorus playing with the full ISO.

Hackman’s title may be new, but the relationship with the ISO started in 2010, when the ISO invited him to collaborate with its Ensemble-In-Residence, Time for Three. It was a comfortable alliance, pairing Hackman as conductor, arranger and composer with three musicians he had known since they were all students at the Curtis Institute of Music.

Together, Hackman and Time for Three were charged with attracting millennials to the Happy Hour series. “It was a clean slate—a chance to fashion a new kind of classical concert experience, not only from the content side, but also from the experiential side,” Hackman says.

The ISO designed Happy Hour at the Symphony as a shorter format with no intermission, open seating and, as the name suggests, a lively hour of food and drink before the concert. The series is not just the ISO reimagined; it’s the classical repertoire fused with Hackman’s wildly creative use of modern musical techniques: sampling, remixing, mash ups, guest spots and bootlegs. “These are terms that everybody knows in the popular world [of music], but we don’t use them in the classical world,” he says. “Our music can be treated in that way, and the results can be very exciting when it’s done with perspective and skill.”

New vision for a venerable art form

The vibrant, genre-bending concerts not only hit their mark with new audiences; over the past decade, they’ve made Hackman a popular composer and conductor with the nation’s major orchestras. “Indianapolis was really the start of this journey,” Hackman says of his career. “Here, I was able to combine all my classical training with work I had been doing all the preceding years.”

Almost every piece he performs on tour with other orchestras has premiered in Indianapolis. “More importantly, the concepts were developed here,” he says. “Indianapolis was a laboratory for Time for Three and me, banding together, exploring new ideas. I was bringing music to them, and we explored and elaborated upon it together. We pushed each other to go further and further. For that reason, this relationship is very, very special.”

The creative freedom Hackman gained with the ISO was a Big Bang event for the classically trained artist, whose thoughts had long revolved around doing something unique with his training. After graduating from the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, he studied at the American Academy of Conducting and began to build a reputation as a conductor. But by 2006, Hackman had all but left the classical stage, frustrated by creative limitations that seemed baked into a career as a classical conductor.

He wanted to create music that felt relevant and ‘in the moment.’ “At the time, I did not see a pathway in the classical world to do that,” Hackman says. Between 2006 and 2010, he sang, produced music, performed at clubs, recorded albums and cut his teeth as a songwriter. Hackman says those years helped him find the sweet spot between the highly-regimented life of a classical musician and the creative ease of an artist.

He occasionally wonders if shedding all the pressure that came with a classical background might free him to be more creative as a composer, but admits that his training is the ultimate enabler. “You never discard the hours of practice and study, or the desire to perfect and refine,” Hackman says. “Perhaps there’s a peaceful co-existence between the two, because I couldn’t do this [creative] work without it.”

When the ISO called in 2010, he was primed to work with Time for Three to highlight the orchestra and to share revolutionary arrangements that have become his trademark—epic combinations of Beethoven with Coldplay and Brahms with Radiohead. In the spring of 2020, he will premiere a piece that blends Mahler with rappers Tupac and Notorious B.I.G.

Leading a new generation of music lovers to the classical repertoire

Uniting the world’s most brilliant music—past and present—offers the obvious reward of creative expression, but there’s a much bigger takeaway for Hackman, who considers advocacy for the art form an intrinsic part of his work. “If you have this powerful, next-level experience from listening to Bartók plus Björk, and you came in only knowing Björk, you’re going to want to understand the other ingredient that you weren’t aware of before,” he says. “That’s an amazing result—when an audience member wants to understand both elements. And it happens on both sides.”

As someone who loves the classical repertoire, Hackman understands why some classical purists consider his work perverse. “I love this music as much or more than the people who are criticizing me for defacing it,” he says. “The only way for me to jump in and create a fusion of Beethoven’s Eroica with Coldplay is to know every single note, to be so intimately familiar with the music, to know where Beethoven was when he was writing it, what was happening in his life, to have analyzed every facet of it. Therefore, I appreciate the value they have for this music, and the feeling that this music is sacred, and shame on anyone who says it could be improved or reimagined. It’s perfect the way it is. I completely get that.”

This summer, Hackman was in town, working on Happy Hour programming and embedding himself in the ISO’s ongoing effort to connect the series to the community. “I’m really excited to have an opportunity as creative director to serve the greater mission of the ISO and to introduce this fantastic orchestra to more and more people,” he says.

After nearly a decade of collaboration, Hackman says the relationship with the orchestra feels wonderful. “We have a mutual respect for one another,” he says. “They gave me my first opportunity, and they stuck with it, even though they must have been very nervous about the direction at times. What I’ve learned here has been tremendous. The orchestra watched me go from this kid who hadn’t conducted for a few years, who had these wild ideas, to playing these pieces with other major orchestras. I think they realize that they helped shape me.”

You can purchase tickets for Happy Hour at the Symphony at the ISO website or at the ISO Box Office, at 317.639.4300. 

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