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Illharmonic Orchestra blends classical music with 'old-school' hip-hop

From left, 'DJ Philly,' 'The Phoenix' and 'Thee Phantom,' the leaders of the Illharmonic Orchestra.

It all started when an 8-year-old Jeffrey McNeill took a recording of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and juxtaposed it with the Beastie Boys' "Paul Revere." He didn't know what it was he'd created, or even if he'd created anything, but he knew that this was a sound he loved and that he wanted to explore it further. Fast forward a few decades, and you have an ensemble that's on the brink of something truly innovative — the Illharmonic Orchestra.

I first became affiliated with the Illharmonic through Twitter. McNeill (aka Thee Phantom) and his wife, Andrea (aka The Phoenix), put out a call for classical musicians interested in hip-hop, and asked them to upload a cover of one of their favorite hip-hop tunes to YouTube. My pick was a song by Nicki Minaj, "Right by My Side." After listening to dozens of videos, Jeffrey and Andrea selected about 20 lucky musicians for a concert in New York's Carnegie Hall. The group has since played at the First Center for the Performing Arts in Atlanta, the Carlos Alvarez Theater in San Antonio and the Kennedy Center for the Performance Arts in Washington, D.C., among many other venues.

The Illharmonic Orchestra performs at Carnegie Hall.

The fusion of hip-hop and classical wasn't always an easy road, though. Andrea McNeill noted in an interview from earlier this year that working with members of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia brought real challenges.

"The concept of meshing the two genres was really frowned upon," she said. "We were told that we were bastardizing the form of classical music, [and] we had someone who actually threw his sheet music back at us after we did a big performance at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia."

Garrett McQueen rehearses with the wind section of the Illharmonic Orchestra before a performance at the Kennedy Center. Andrea Coln

With a real understanding of the power of hip-hop and its history of being a genre that's always dealt with push-back, the McNeills pressed forward with a slightly different approach. It became clear to them that working with musicians of a younger generation would be the best bet, and when this youthful energy and curiosity, matched with classical training, met the "old-school" sounds of artists like Wu-Tang, Lauryn Hill, the Roots and others, the stage was set for what's already proven to be something you've never heard before.

The Illharmonic Orchestra, led by the McNeills and their DJ, Philip Charles (aka DJ Philly), is on a push to promote their new album, Maniac Maestro. More information on this album, and the group, can be found at their official site.

"Love of the Game," from the Illharmonic Orchestra's new album, Maniac Maestro, is a tribute to marching bands.

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