Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra Doesn’t Let Down With ‘Brahms X. Radiohead’

The orchestra combined a classic rock album and symphony in this genre-bending performance.

The obvious opening for this review of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra Brahms X. Radiohead performance this past weekend would be something about how odd that pairing seems. I, your intrepid reviewer, might write something like, “Interpolating Radiohead’s seminal 1997 album OK Computer and Johannes Brahms’ powerful 1882 composition Symphony No. 1? What a novel concept!” To add some color to my prose, I might compare the unexpected combination to olive oil on sour patch kids, maybe Red Bull and chardonnay, or even Tom Cruise and Cher (I swear they dated. Look it up. The ’80s, man, what a decade.)

But I’m not going to do that because I do not believe Brahms and Radiohead are a particularly weird pairing. They just seem weird at first consideration. Radiohead’s modern trappings disguise the fact, apparent to all fans, that Radiohead is a composer’s band. Their music is primed for comparison with the greats in the classical tradition.

It’s far from happenstance that Jonny Greenwood and Thom Yorke, the Mario and Luigi of Radiohead, have both gone on to compose film scores. Their work in Radiohead, including OK Computer, is rife with lush orchestration, careful musicality and experimental composition that would make Karlheinz Stockhausen proud. Whether it’s Greenwood’s atonal strings in “Climbing Up the Walls” or the glockenspiel on “No Surprises,” the album’s unconventional touches go far beyond what mainstream rock was doing at the time. (And yet the music still manages to rock – hard.)

All this is to say that fusing OK Computer and Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, as composer Steve Hackman has done, makes plenty of sense to me. And, I would venture to say that the nearly full house who watched Hackman’s piece performed with me at the Bradley Symphony Center on Friday would agree. The crowd was quite the mix of ages – families with little children, 20-somethings, retired folks. I’ve been attending the symphony since I was so young I thought Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” was a Vitamin C rip-off, and at many of the performances I attended years ago, the age distribution leaned firmly gray, so I was pleased to see Brahms X. Radiohead attract this crowd.



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The night’s programming began with an unexpected, but not unwelcome, overture of sorts – “Creep.” Yup, good ol’ “Creep,” Radiohead’s most popular song, by a fairly wide margin, famous among fans as a song that the band kind of hates. They even wrote “My Iron Lung” as a middle finger to it. But, as Hackman pointed out, the lyrics bemoaning alienation ring thematically true with the band’s entire oeuvre.  

The performance’s three guests vocalists – Rich Saunders, Alita Moses and Jamal Moore – delivered a haunting rendition of the grungy song over dense string orchestration. The brief opening piece was an enjoyable surprise – and before we’d even begun the main programming it had me wondering what other Radiohead songs I’d like to hear the MSO perform. “Motion Picture Soundtrack” would leave me in tatters. 

After the overture, Hackman, who also conducted the night’s performance, took a moment to explain his thoughts behind the fusing of works here. 

Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 is by parts gloomy and triumphant, a classical piece that, at its time, was considered quite conservative, leaning toward respect for tradition more than musical experimentation. While that may seem at odds with Radiohead’s ethos, Hackman found common ground. 

In his remarks to the audience, he emphasized thematic points of connection between the two works – “anxiety” and “pathos.” Brahms was perhaps the most promising composer of his generation and was considered the heir to Beethoven, a role so overwhelming it took him two decades to write his first symphony, knowing that it would be judged against the master that came before. That anxiety, Hackman says, is rampant in the symphony itself, which begins with unnerving drums and menacing strings. Radiohead wrote OK Computer in a similarly unpleasant fit of anxiety, beset by fears of the internet age, creeping totalitarianism and societal isolation that pepper the lyrics.

Besides the thematic similarities, Hackman also points to musical similarities in his program notes, such as the “iv-I chord progression” in “No Surprises” being the same used by Brahms in his second movement, and the use of 6/8 timing. 

“I believe that the more we truly understand the creative and technical processes that result in any kind of art – regardless of genre or category – the more similar they will reveal themselves to us,” Hackman wrote in his program notes.

After Hackman spoke, the real performance began with those anxious drums and strings that he referenced. Hackman built Brahms X. Radiohead around a push-and-pull. At times, he had Brahms take center stage, sprinkling Radiohead melodies and riffs over the composer’s structure and driving symphonic force. Other times, Radiohead took the fore, the three vocalists lit by spotlight as they sang OK Computer tracks, while Brahms’ harmonies provided a backdrop. 

I have to admit that as a Radiohead fan more than a Brahms fan, that alteration left me feeling a little sorry for poor Johannes. While his symphony was beautiful it was hard not to wait excitedly for the next Radiohead portion to come up. I mean, I love me some “Andante sostenuto” but the program said “No Surprises” came next so I was getting a little jumpy waiting.

I have to say that I do not envy anyone who is tasked with singing a Radiohead song. Thom Yorke’s voice is inimitable – it’s angelic, high-pitched, weird and beautiful and can’t be faked. Saunders, Moses and Moore, wisely didn’t try. Instead they brought their particular vocal skill set to the music. And they absolutely delivered, each taking the lead on different tracks.

Moore unleashed a rousing, surprisingly soulful version of “Let Down” that lit up the room. Singing in a lower register than Yorke with a more Broadway style, he took that soaring final chorus to remarkable heights. Seriously, that was a powerful moment. You could feel every eye lock on the stage. There was even this little kid a seat down from me who was squirming the whole show (probably a Coldplay fan), who froze when Moore hit that “You know where you are with / floor collapsing, floating.”

When Saunders started singing “Paranoid Android,” I suddenly felt a little scared for the guy. I thought, “Oh, God, this one gets real high-pitched real fast.” And then Saunders sang, “from all the unborn chicken voices in my head” in perfect pitch, his voice capturing that unnerving feeling of the song remarkably well. The same goes for his rendition of “Exit Music,” my favorite track on the album, which he drove to its haunting “everlasting peace” climax with verve. Of all the vocalists, his high-pitched tone hued the closest to Yorke’s style.

And Moses delivered the most unexpected moment of the night for me in “Electioneering.” That song, in my humble opinion, is the most forgettable on OK Computer. I know folks disagree with me, but it’s just not “Karma Police” or “Lucky” or even “Fitter Happier” which is memorable because of its weirdness and extremely unsettling lyrics. So when she started singing that rousing chorus, I was shocked at how much I enjoyed it. Her amazing vocal abilities turned my least favorite track into a highlight of the show.  

And our MSO, as expected, played beautifully. When the show wrapped, the audience was on their feet delivering a deserved standing ovation.

Now to put an (unnecessarily) long review short: Hackman made something awesome here. And the MSO brought it to life. The night was a triumph.

Ok, that’s the whole review. Thanks for reading. I hope you now feel fitter, healthier and more productive.



Archer is the managing editor at Milwaukee Magazine. Some say he is a great warrior and prophet, a man of boundless sight in a world gone blind, a denizen of truth and goodness, a beacon of hope shining bright in this dark world. Others say he smells like cheese.