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Symphony show blends tradition with modern rock, pop

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The workday has ended, and offices all over downtown Indianapolis are emptying as people head home.

A subset of music lovers have flocked on Monument Circle, packing into the ornate lobby of the Hilbert Circle Theatre. They mingle and chat, sipping on martinis and Indy-based microbrews.

But this isn’t a post-work gathering at the local bar. This is Happy Hour at the Symphony.

Young professionals, local musicians and long-time patrons of the arts soon will take their seats inside the theater. They have come to hear some of the hottest indie bands in the Midwest perform alongside tubas, flutes and violins.

The hip-oriented program of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra has tried to take the stuffy reputation out of classical music. The events aim to bring a new audience to the symphony, mashing up traditional classical music with the tunes of bands such as Radiohead and Bon Iver.

“We wanted to create it like it was a rock show. We had a way that we wanted to intertwine artists from the past with artists from the present,” Ranaan Meyer, double-bassist for Time for Three and one of the series organizers for the symphony, said.


What: A laid-back approach to symphony music. Organizers Time for Three put together unique concerts blending classical music and modern hits, with a low-key reception beforehand for people to mingle.

When: Reception starts at 5 p.m., with the concert starting at 6:30.

Where: Hilbert Circle Theatre, 32 E. Washington St., Indianapolis

Upcoming shows:

  • Jan. 23
  • May 15
  • July 17

Cost: $25 in advance, $30 day of the show

Information: indianapolissympony.org

Happy Hour at the Symphony

Jan. 23 show

Time for Three

Who: Violinist Zach De Pue, violinist Nick Kendall and double bassist Ranaan Meyer

What: Trio that blends traditional classical with modern rock and pop. The group is the resident ensemble at the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra

Where: Indianapolis

Information: tf3.com

Lily & Madeline

Who: Teen sisters who have generated massive buzz after their first single, “In the Middle,” became a viral hit

What: An easy mix of folk and rock, with gentle vocals and seamless harmonies

Where: Indianapolis

Information: lilandmad.com

Tony Styxx

Who: A spoken word artist, MC and beat-box performer

What: Heady and at times challenging hip-hop crackling with energy

Where: Indianapolis

Information: tonystyxx.bandcamp.com

Happy Hour at the Symphony was born in 2006, when orchestra leaders were looking for a way to bring new people to the symphony. They came up with the idea to create a one-hour concert that featured guest conductors, artists and local celebrity hosts.

The idea would be to take excerpts of popular classical music by stalwarts such as Mozart, Bach and Brahms, then mix in some contemporary arrangements, spokeswoman Jessica di Santo said.

Attendance started strong, with a loose concept, and eventually dipped to about 150 people per show. But the series truly took off in 2009.

At the time, the symphony had just welcomed its new artists-in-residence, Time for Three. The trio combines violins and double bass to put unique spins on traditional classic music as well as modern hits from the Beatles, Kanye West and Katy Perry.

The members of Time for Three — Meyer and violinists Zach De Pue and Nick Kendall — had some ideas for the struggling series.

“We wanted to do something that was carrying towards young professionals, younger people in the Indy area,” Meyer said. “We had an idea of presenting the music in a way that they were familiar with — lights, songs they’d recognize, then mix in some of the classical hits. It’d be like a rock show.”

Their first attempt at this combination blended Coldplay and the music of Johannes Brahms. More than 900 people came out to see it.

Time for Three’s members were nervous about taking on the project, but they tried it.

“And it worked. People were intrigued by what we were going to do,” Meyer said.

From that point on, Happy Hour at the Symphony has been Time for Three’s baby. During the past four years, they’ve done concerts that mixed Brahm’s First Symphony with songs from Radiohead’s seminal “OK Computer” album.

In the midst of a slate of Beethoven, Debussy and Grieg, the orchestra broke out John Mayer’s “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room.” A portion of Aaron Copeland’s suite from “Appalachia” with music from atmospheric rockers Bon Iver.

They have found that with a little planning, any good music can go together, De Pue said.

The key is presenting it in a way where each different piece combines to create a singular experience.

“It’s like going to a restaurant that’s not just one cuisine. You can have something that tastes kind of Asian, then have some barbecue, and it works,” Meyer said. “That’s because a great chef has thought through what the experience and taste is going to be. It’s the same way with music.”

The concerts have also included guest appearances by some of the area’s best performers.

Ohio-born songsmith Joshua Radin sat in with Time for Three for a concert in 2013. Plastik Music, an abstract percussion group using plastic tubes, laundry tubs and other unusual items to make music, was part of the show in October.

On Jan. 23, buzz-generating pop duo Lily & Madeline will be on stage to play with the symphony. MC Tony Styxx will provide his unique style of hip-hop and spoken word poetry.

“We’ve been smitten with their talent for a long time. Nothing more, nothing less,” Meyer said. “We didn’t think that Tony would go well with Lily & Madeline, or that it worked well together. We just thought we needed to put their talent on stage with one of the best orchestra’s in the country.”

In the past year, crowds of 1,000 or more are the norm at Happy Hour at the Symphony, di Santo said.

A majority of the patrons are under the age of 49, with the largest chunk of the audience being made up of 21- to 29-year-olds.

To that group of young professionals, Happy Hour at the Symphony provides high-quality artistic entertainment paired with a fun and informal after-work atmosphere, di Santo said.

That has required some adjustment from organizers, though. Where regular symphony performances are planned nearly two years in advance, Happy Hour works with some flexibility.

The programs are fluid, coming together sometimes weeks before the performance, Meyer said.

And often, tickets go mostly unsold until the day of the show.

“It’s not that our fans don’t care, but they know that the concert will be there, and this is how they go about approaching the tickets,” Meyer said. “There’s a trust with the fans. They don’t know what to expect, but they trust us that it’ll be great. And we trust them to be here.”

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