When you think of orchestras, you might picture a formulaic evening of sitting for an extended period of time while listening to the same old songs. But the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra wants you to know that there’s more than meets the ear.
This weekend, the group will perform a concert mixing hits from legendary rappers Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac with Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony.
The show, appropriately dubbed “The Resurrection Mixtape,” is another edition of conductor Steve Hackman’s “Fusion” series. With previous events pairing up artists like Beyoncé and Beethoven, Lady Gaga and Brahms, and Drake and Tchaikovsky, Hackman’s blend of classical music with contemporary R&B, rap and pop encapsulates what modern fandom can look like for the BSO.
“This piece this weekend is a really striking example of that because you’re bringing Mahler, this really established late romantic Austrian composer together with … two of the most iconic rap artists of all time,” Hackman said.
The conductor created “Fusion” so these musical events are inclusive for fans of all genres, not just traditional orchestra pieces.
“I was trained classically as a composer and a conductor so when I got out there into the professional classical music world, I was just struck by how distanced it felt from popular music,” Hackman said. “Having grown up with both kinds of music and having always made both kinds of music myself, I thought there was a real opportunity to create a bridge between the classical and popular worlds to experience music together.”
And while the concerts at the Music Center at Strathmore on Friday and the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall on Saturday will feature works from the ‘90s (both 1890s and 1990s), Hackman said “the message from the source material is just as powerful and essential as ever today.” With overarching themes of racism and triumph in Tupac and Biggie’s music, it’s hard to disagree on its relevancy in 2024.
Tupac, who attended the Baltimore School for the Arts, frequently voiced his disdain with social injustices through interviews and in songs such as “Changes” and “Keep Ya Head Up,” which will both be in the orchestra’s medley. The Brooklyn-born Biggie’s music also heavily influenced hip-hop, and has penned songs about subjects like his mental health (”Suicidal Thoughts”) and time selling drugs (”Things Done Changed”) — tracks that are also apart of BSO’s lineup. But don’t worry: “The Resurrection Mixtape” will also include chart-toppers like “Hypnotize” and “California Love.”
The five featured soloists for the show are all Black artists. Jecorey Arthur, India Carney and Marcus Tenney will handle vocals, Bobby Wooten will be on the electric bass and TaRon Lockett will play the drums. “When you attend a symphony orchestra concert, you might not see as much diversity on the stage as there should be,” Hackman said, adding that he wants to be part of efforts to change that.
The “Fusion” series is just one of the avenues the BSO has taken to diversify their programming. On Thursday night, they held their second annual Lunar New Year concert. Less than two weeks ago, the orchestra played the score of “Back to the Future” live alongside a screening of the film.
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra president and CEO Mark Hanson said there has been a noted increase in attendance. Their current season is up by about 7% over last year’s, and the “Fusion” concerts have attracted between 1,500 to 2,000 attendees per show — the majority of which are new to BSO’s database, he said.
“It gives those of us who have been in the orchestra field for a couple of decades a lot of hope,” Hanson said. “These programs are attracting not only new audiences, but younger audiences who are perhaps being attracted to BSO concerts here at the Meyerhoff or at Strathmore for the first time in their life.”
Hackman said the “overall mission” of his series is “to find possible solutions of how to keep the classical art form alive and thriving and to build bridges with new audiences.”
“There are members of our community that maybe haven’t felt like it is a place for them — that maybe haven’t felt that it [the orchestra] is a place where they’re welcome,” he said. “And that’s something that I take very seriously. I’m trying to be part of a movement of change.”