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Lump sum: PSO to cover Bon Iver in FUSE series

Wade H. Massie

Wade H. Massie

By Noah Coco / for The Pitt News

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Audiences to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra are trading in slacks for skinny jeans, Mozart for “Skinny Love.”

On Wednesday, Jan. 27, the orchestra will perform its newest program as part of its FUSE@PSO series by covering the acclaimed indie-folk band Bon Iver. The FUSE series challenges the preconceptions of classical and popular music and integrates them into a single arrangement. The concert begins at 6:30 p.m., but the show will begin at 5 p.m. with a pre-concert happy hour and a local DJ.

The program will open with the featured piece, American composer Aaron Copland’s Pulitzer Prize-winning ballet, “Appalachian Spring,” fused with lyrics from several Bon Iver songs. FUSE creative director Steve Hackman wrote the arrangement.

Although the orchestra and acclaimed acoustic band seem like an unconventional pair, Hackman said they embody a similar folk influence that celebrates nature.

“[‘Appalachian Spring’ and Bon Iver] both speak to the relationship we have with one another that nature sets the stage for,” said Hackman.

Copland wrote “Appalachian Spring,” which premiered in 1944, as a ballet about a married pioneer couple in 19th century Pennsylvania. Its title comes from a dancer, Martha Graham, who Copland commissioned to choreograph the ballet. As the name suggests, the score’s flowing melodies are intended to evoke images of sprawling fields and Appalachian mountains.

Bon Iver draws on similarly organic influences. Justin Vernon, the band’s frontman and lead singer, wrote and recorded his band’s first album, “For Emma, Forever Ago” post-breakup in a cabin in the northern Michigan woods. His lyrical imagery and bare approach to songwriting embodies an isolated environment that has made Vernon a household name in the indie-rock realm.

Following the Copland and Bon Iver arrangement, local Pittsburgh electronic-dance band, Beauty Slap, will perform some of its own pieces arranged with the orchestra. Performing in smaller venues, such as the Rex Theater and WPTS radio station, since they formed just one year ago, Beauty Slap received national attention after releasing its first self-titled EP album last May.

Sound designer Jake Berntsen heads the group, which also features a brass section made up of two trumpets and two trombones.

Berntsen said he has worked with Hackman to adapt original Beauty Slap compositions for the orchestra in what he calls a “concerto for Beauty Slap and orchestra.”

“I am extremely excited for our core Beauty Slap fans to experience us in something other than the club setting — I am extremely excited for traditional symphony-goers to hear some music that is generally reserved for a club setting,” said Berntsen.

Although Beauty Slap also seems like an unusual band to pair with the Pittsburgh Symphony, the diversity encapsulates a specific strategy. FUSE’s effort is to remain relevant in the community and engage local talent by mashing the orchestra with contemporary acts by covering their songs, such as Radiohead and Coldplay late last year, before Wednesday’s Bon Iver theme.

Pittsburgh Symphony’s take on Bon Iver, a decidedly contemporary act, with Beauty Slap’s dance-centric music is part of the rebranding effort Hackman leads for the orchestra.

“The perception of classical music is that it is old fashioned, perhaps that it is not evolving with the time,” said Hackman, whose reaction is to “de-mystify classical music” by implementing techniques of pop music like mashing and remixing to the classical, orchestral world. Hackman brought his FUSE mash-ups to Pittsburgh last June, which combined Brahms with Radiohead.

This pop and classical combo is not meant to replace classical music at the symphony orchestra, but rather enhance its history.

“It does not threaten orchestral music as long as we understand that these pieces are works that have stood the test of time,” said Elizabeth Bloom, classical music critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “The fact that they are experiences is important to keep in mind.”

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Lump sum: PSO to cover Bon Iver in FUSE series