Ensemble Connect and YouTube Creator Sam Tsui celebrate the power of music in a new video project at Carnegie Hall, which creates a unique, unofficial mashup of Beyoncé’s songs with Beethoven’s music, blending the contemporary with the classical.
Ensemble Connect is a two-year fellowship program with Carnegie Hall, The Juilliard School, and Weill Music Institute that prepares young professional classical musicians for their future careers. Sam Tsui is an internet singing sensation on YouTube having amassed over 350 million hits on his channel alone.
So why Beyoncé and Beethoven? “Both artists have something to say, and they mean it. The specific language may differ, but their music shares an urgency and real sense of character from the most intimate and tender to exuberant or raging moments,” explains Leo Sussman who plays the flute in Ensemble Connect.
For more insight about the project, we spoke to Sam Tsui, as well as Leo Sussman, Sae Hashimoto, Wilden Dannenberg, Elizabeth Joy Roe, and Caeli Smith from Ensemble Connect. Be sure to check out the video of the mashup performance with an added behind-the-scenes peek.
How did the idea of a mashup of Beyoncé and Beethoven, with you and Ensemble Connect, come about?
The idea of mashing up some well known classical music with a contemporary artist seemed like it could be a really fun exercise, so the question became, “what classical music and what artist?” Given that Beethoven’s 250th birthday is coming up and the Ensemble will be doing a big Beethoven program made for an easy choice. As for the contemporary artist, we needed someone with a large, diverse catalog, and the sort of instant song recognition so that we could really lean into creative interplay between the pieces.
You’ve done a few mashups/duets in the past on your YouTube channel, how does this one compare?
I absolutely love the deconstruction and playfulness that goes into a lot of the mashups I do. Obviously working with classical music and making it feel seamless with the Beyoncé tunes was a challenge I’d never quite tackled before and there was a lot of trial and error. But it was fantastic working with the Ensemble members to fine tune and orchestrate the ideas into something that I think feels really tight and well-conceived.
What was it like performing with classical musicians? Is it something you’ve experienced before?
I’ve done a bit of classical singing, but it’s certainly been a while, and singing with a pop sensibility to Beethoven was an interesting thing to navigate. It was super refreshing to work with the Ensemble Connect musicians because their level of technical music know-how and musicianship is of course a lot higher than is required in most contemporary pop, so it was fun to geek out a bit while working with them!
What will you take away from this experience?
The amazing thing about this being a video project is that, for one, we get to walk away with a fantastic recording of the piece that we get to share and enjoy. Personally, it was really fascinating to work on a project bridging two artists separated by a lot of time and different cultural and musical sensibilities, but who share the power to create music that resonates with so many so deeply.
It’s really humbling to look at the history of music and its evolution and understand just how fundamental and transformative it can be — and how so much of what makes good music is timeless.
What was it like working with Sam Tsui on the project? And in what ways do you need to adapt when working with a singer?
Elizabeth Joy Roe (piano): It was such a joy to collaborate with Sam! He is not only a fabulous vocalist, but also a thoughtful musician, generous colleague, and galvanizing person. In my opinion, working with a singer is just like working with an instrumentalist: one must always be aptly acute, be open to listening, have adaptability, curiosity, and attentiveness.
Leo Sussman (flute): Working with Sam Tsui on this music video was a fun step outside of my typical comfort zone of playing chamber music for live audiences, and I think proved a worthy challenge for Ensemble Connect – from how to make a group of 11 instrumentalists sound like a full orchestra at one moment and a pop band at the next, to emulating vocal-style writing in our own parts.
What is the Ensemble's favorite Beyoncé/Beethoven mashup moment in the video?
Elizabeth: There are so many clever moments throughout! I thought Beethoven’s ‘Pathétique’ Sonata excerpt matched seamlessly and beautifully with Beyoncé’s ‘Halo’, and Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata cast ‘Drunk in Love’ in an alluringly yearning, soulful light.
Caeli Smith (viola): My personal favorite moment is the ‘Love On Top’ mashup with ‘Ode To Joy’ from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. I love the musical modulations at the end of ‘Love On Top’, when Beyoncé hops from key to key, and every modulation brings a heightened sense of excitement, uplifting the listeners each time. We did our own version, and I think we achieved a similar kind of energy and joy.
What were the challenges of this project?
Sae Hashimoto (percussion): Coming up with creative transitions between the pieces was challenging. We wanted to make sure that each transition made sense harmonically, and also carried the appropriate flow. We also tried to squeeze in more Beethoven quotes within the transitions.
Wilden Dannenberg (horn): The most challenging thing here for me was the quick turnaround of the project. Everything had to be ready to go the day of recording, no time for revision. We had to have lots of options ready for Sam and the ensemble, with built-in flexibility in case of arrangement changes. Flexibility ended up being super crucial because we ended up having a few options for the arrangement.
What makes Beethoven’s music so popular?
Wilden: The rhythmic complexity of Beethoven's music has really stood the test of time. Combine that with mold-breaking melodies for his generation (see his ‘Eroica’ Symphony) and he's an unstoppable presence in music history!
What is Beethoven’s signature sound/what makes his music so recognizable?
Sae: He was known to use small rhythmic cells or a short melodic motif as the basis of development. Whether it’s the famous opening of his Fifth Symphony, or the three-note motif in his ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, these small puzzle pieces that make up his music as a whole are so catchy and make for a great ear-worm!
What will you take away from this experience?
Leo: Cliché as it sounds, the notion of embracing creative risk-taking and committing to artistic choices. This is not the kind of project for which giving 50% was ever an option – nor do I believe that there is any endeavor for which that’s the case.
Caeli: I was amazed that the shoot was so seamless and easy. It was just a super fun day. When you have the highest quality musicians and creative crew working together, the time flies. I can't wait for people to see that aside from performing beloved classic chamber music, Ensemble Connect is constantly searching for different ways to expand the concept of what a 21st century musician can be.
From classical to contemporary, Beethoven to Beyoncé, Ensemble Connect and Sam Tsui have shown that blending iconic music from different genres can create something unique, powerful, and unsurprisingly catchy.