Steve Hackman: Creator of Fuse concerts

Last March, I interviewed Steve Hackman, Creative Director of FUSE Concerts with the Pittsburgh Symphony. These FUSE concerts are truly different than any other "Classical" concert experience I have attended. In fact, the whole point is that these concerts are not "Classical" but rather a completely new genre of music. Featuring the music of both Tchaikovsky and Drake, Hackman beautifully fuses two seemingly opposite musical genres, and presents a concert experience that forces its audience to rethink their compartmentalization of musical genres. 

In this interview, I ask Hackman questions regarding his take on the future of symphony orchestras and classical music, and his thoughts on the curriculum for music conservatories in the US.

About Steve Hackman

Conductor, composer, arranger, producer and songwriter Steve Hackman is increasingly in demand as one of the most compelling artists contributing to a new landscape in hybrid music. Fluent in both classical and popular repertoire, he crafts and conducts virtuosic, cross-genre works and performances that intrigue the established audience and engage an excited new one. He currently holds the positions of Creative Director of FUSE at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Music Director of the 'Mash-Up' series at the Colorado Music Festival, and founder/creative director of his music brand :STEREO HIDEOUT:

For an example of his work, check this out! Personally, I think this is the coolest thing since sliced bread, but you'll have to decide for yourself.


LS: In the wake of financial struggles, significant questions have arisen regarding how symphony orchestras will survive financially. How do you think orchestras will be funded in the future?  What direction do you see classical music taking in the next twenty years with respect to the business and/or artistic model of the American symphony orchestra?

SH: Well, the problem is that our presentation of this music has not evolved. Essentially, we do it the same way. It’s primarily funded by the financially elite. Not all of it, but a good majority of it.

In the beginning of the twentieth century we started down this road where symphonic audiences and classical musicians became more elite and distant from the general public. This has had very negative ramifications. Composers went down this road as well. It has continued even to now, where the cultural and financial elite choose the composers they dub as the “voice of a generation". So, it doesn’t matter what the public necessarily thinks of a composer's works. What matters is that the patrons continue to pay the composers and that classical music critics and “power players” continue to think their music is the standard bearer of the current times.

For me, that’s a problem. We’ve lost a connection between the populace and the music. Beethoven needed to please the public with his work but I think in present day we’ve lost that. The "for profit" and "non-for profit" models are emblematic of that. I’m not saying I have something against nonprofits (of course I don’t). However, when I think of Stravinsky and Diaghilev and their ballet productions, I think of music that was rousing and controversial. Their artistic controversy penetrated the public much more than contemporary classical music does today. There was a relevance, a now-ness. If the content is good and accessible to the general public, we shouldn’t have to rely on a few private donors for this art or music to survive.

LS: This addresses another question I have. I know you’ve conducted both regional orchestras as well as major American orchestras like the Indianapolis and Pittsburgh Symphony.  In your experiences with these ensembles, which do you think is more viable as a sustainable institution?

SH: The one that creates a meaningful relationship with their public, plays with enthusiasm and passion, engages the people they serve, and has players that are active members of the community. I don’t care if it’s in Tuscaloosa, or Toledo, or Chicago, or wherever. And whether the players went to Curtis or are self-taught--it doesn’t matter. Obviously, they need to be of a certain level, but I’ve seen orchestras in communities that on paper don’t look like they are capable of supporting the endeavor. Yet, they have rousing concerts- because they’ve established a relationship with their public. They have members who are part of the community, and a music director who lives there.

LS: Right, not just flying in.

SH: Sure. And finally, I’m a strong believer that this is all content driven. I mean, of course we want people to hear Beethoven, Mahler and Mozart. And we’re all passionate about the works of those great composers. One of my greatest heroes is Leonard Bernstein because he found a way to make this music accessible to the people. He was a pioneer in terms of presenting classical music on television and so was Karajan.These musical messengers made music accessible to the masses.

Ultimately, we have to say something besides “this music is going to die unless you come hear it”, because the greater public is going to ask the question, "What does this have to do with me”?

LS: Right, so that’s kind of getting at relevance. How is the symphony orchestra relevant to society? Because it seems to me that both classical music as a genre and the symphony orchestra as an institution have struggled to remain relevant to audiences in the wake of 21st century entertainment. How is the symphony orchestra relevant to an audience that is finding other ways to get music and information?

SH: It’s not. I mean, A Cappella music is more relevant to society at large because of things like Glee and “The Sing-Off”. The symphony orchestra? Unfortunately, it’s not. The only ways your average American interacts with the symphony orchestra are passive. That’s through 1) film scores 2) video games and 3) the rare song on the radio that might include some classical element. Even live musical theatre has done away with a large percentage of the orchestra. So, actually we are talking about film scores and video game music.

LS: You’ve done an amazing job of fusing together two different genres, pop and classical. Do you feel that’s a new medium through which the symphony orchestra could have a comeback?

SH: Re-contextualizing the music, providing access to and relevance for the music, is crucial. There are several different approaches you can take. Mine is a content-driven strategy. I’m passionate about classical and popular music. People hold stereotypes that popular music is somehow inferior to classical and the classical is somehow superior. That’s nonsense. I want to show how they’re both equal. In addition to that, I’ve had a life in both worlds and it’s natural that I would combine them into a hybrid musical form.  

Hackman conducting and performing at the Colorado Music Festival 2013 "Music Mash-Up," "Brahms v. Radiohead"  (Photo: Courtesy of Jan Folsom)

Hackman conducting and performing at the Colorado Music Festival 2013 "Music Mash-Up," "Brahms v. Radiohead"

(Photo: Courtesy of Jan Folsom)

That’s what any creative person should do— assimilate elements they’ve been exposed to and write musical language that is their own. Sometimes in classical music, I think we want to ignore change. When was the last time we added an instrument to the symphony orchestra? How long has it been? There’s no drum machine in the symphony orchestra?  Yet we’ve been using drum machines in pop music since the 1970's. There’s no turntables? No guitars? That shows where classical music is at, as far as changing and evolving with the times, and also might be the reason some look at my work and relate to it. For me, this fusion is makes sense as far as an evolution of classical music, but I really hesitate to call what I’m doing  "classical” because I know so many people wouldn't.

LS: So, do you think the term “Classical"  should be replaced? And maybe this genre of music will become something more synonymous to your mashup Fuse concerts?

 SH: Well, if we’re going to take classical music to mean the tradition that is centuries old, and the practice that doesn’t seem to want to evolve with the times, then absolutely we shouldn’t do that.

LS: What would you call your music?

SH: I guess I would call it hybrid music, or art music

LS: So, for you, what does the twenty first-century musician look like? A twenty-first century “classical” musician?

SH: Well, nothing will ever change the prerequisite for discipline and mastery over your instrument.

LS: Right, not sacrificing artistry or quality.

SH: I would hope that the twenty-first century classical musician would abandon the idea that they are restricted and limited to classical music. But to do that would require a major philosophical break and a lot of re-programming, because the higher level of artistry one attains, the more ingrained the idea becomes about doing one thing and doing one thing well. I would hope that we are evolved enough as a society to understand that that ideology is ridiculous.

LS: Did your Curtis colleagues seem to be heading into that direction in terms of fusing genres together?

SH: Very few. I don’t think the reluctance of my Curtis colleagues to sort of go into hybrid areas or explore new areas was based on elitism, or for the most part, some sort of snobbery. I just think it was ignorance-- a lack of exposure. I went to Curtis for graduate school, and I did my undergrad at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign. I was twenty when I started at Curtis, so I had already had school and had some creative experiences. I was never going to throw away my own creativity, but these kids at Curtis--nobody was encouraging that. It was like they never even thought to ask the question: what about my voice? What about my creativity?

LS: So, if you could change the landscape of collegiate music education, what would that look like to you?

Dr. Ford Lallerstedt  (For more info about Dr. Lallerstedt, check out this awesome interview with him from,

Dr. Ford Lallerstedt

(For more info about Dr. Lallerstedt, check out this awesome interview with him from,

SH: It would be teaching counterpoint and improvisation, and fostering the composer in every student. That’s how I learned. When I got to Curtis, my life was basically saved by my counterpoint teacher, Dr. Ford Lallerstedt. I would have gone down the path of becoming another American music director because I wanted to prove it to everybody. Dr. Lallerstedt took me out of all my musical studies classes and taught me everything individually and most importantly, encouraged my own creative development.

The thing is, everyone is already a composer. But we somehow lose that as we get older. We worship great composers and their music, and while their music deserve adoration, nobody wants to be like them. Maybe it’s because we think, “How could I ever compare to Stravinsky? Why should I even start?” But that’s just silly. It's destructive.

 LS: What is your greatest success?

SH: My greatest success, if I’m ever able to achieve that, will be to truly invent a new hybrid classical experience. And one that is multidimensional and multifaceted. Not just mash-up shows. It would be performance after performance of the next evolved art music.

LS: Biggest failure?

SH: Well, I will be totally honest, and tell you that my biggest failure is not being good at the political game. Not understanding the power game. From a tactical standpoint, I’ve made some unbelievable mistakes. What I am doing is dangerous and threatening to some and winning consensus can be a very delicate process.

I’ve got some amazing failures actually, like spray-chalking the sidewalk outside of Heinz Hall for the Brahms Radiohead concert. I received permission to do this because it was water soluble spray chalk. But what I didn't’ realize is that it would take six months of heavy rainfall to get that chalk removed. And that was my first concert with the Pittsburgh Symphony. So needless to say the Operations department of the PSO….Well, we got off on a bit of a bad foot, because they power-washed the heck out of those things and they could not get it off the sidewalk.

Outside Heinz Hall where Hackman spray painted the sidewalk.

Outside Heinz Hall where Hackman spray painted the sidewalk.

LS: What did it say?

SH: Well, it was a stencil-like spray paint advertisement on the sidewalk. It was an ad for the concert- that had been approved by the Art Department, I should mention! But it just didn’t come off! I got back in the fall and the concert had been in June, and it was still there!!! I thought, “Wow, these people must hate me!”

LS: What career advice can you give to young classical musicians who are entering the music profession?

SH: Be as versatile as possible. Try to learn as many techniques as you can. For a lot of people that’s going to be conceptually difficult they see themselves as specialized, and they see that specialization as crucial to their success. “I’m a violinist, this is what I do.” Okay, well let’s add something to that. Do you like jazz music? Rap music? Metal? Are you willing to play recording sessions? Play in bands? Are you into wellness, or are you into yoga? How can you develop another side of your artistry? How can you make yourself multifaceted? And by continuing to develop different techniques and different abilities, the eventual goal is you find a way to combine them all.  

The last thing I would just say is the obvious: be professional, be kind, be humble and be on time.