'Dead Symphony': Gratefully, It's a New Orchestral Trip
Monday, August 4, 2008
by Ronni Reich
BALTIMORE -- The crowd at Meyerhoff Hall Friday night was
predictable: peace-sign earrings, flowers swiped through buttonholes,
tie-dye slung over potbellies, fans seeking scalpers outside and
arena-size roars of applause inside. What else was to be expected for
the sold-out performance of "Dead Symphony"?
Musically, much more than one might think. Rather than present a
montage of Grateful Dead hits with guitar parts handed over to the
violins, composer Lee Johnson, in his Symphony No. 6, translated most
of the work's 12 songs into an entirely different genre, re-imagining
the mellow, folksy tunes as parts of a grand drama, with thick,
swelling strings, brass fanfares and crashing cymbals.
The epic take was jarring in the normally beach-ready "Here Comes
Sunshine," which Johnson cast in a slow tempo with weighty textures
and ponderous tones. Johnson capitalized on the song's shifting
harmonies, and while the glints of sun that seem to emerge in the
original were all the brighter for the contrasting darkness he added,
the song was barely recognizable.
It is Johnson's sense of exploration -- as shown by "If I Had the
World to Give" turned string quartet, an improvised jam session
concluding "Stella Blue," and a smartly used harpsichord -- that made
the work a viable tribute. Under Lucas Richman, the Baltimore
Symphony Orchestra played cleanly and enthusiastically (though less
so in Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story" and
the Overture to "Candide"). With psychedelic images and photos of the
band splashed across a video screen, all that was missing were the lyrics.
Perhaps a "Dead Oratorio" is in order.
Garcia's music by BSO
August 4, 2008
A middle-aged woman with a thatch of gray hair wandered the lobby of
Baltimore's Meyerhoff Symphony Hall on Friday night looking dazed and
confused. Her behavior was symptomatic of a rare medical condition:
"Why is everybody so mellow?" she asked. "Everybody's saying 'please'
and 'excuse me.'"
Ed Branthaver - a bearded 70-year-old wearing a multicolored
harlequin costume - stood nearby handing out free flowers to
passers-by. He responded with a beatific smile. "That's the spirit of
the Grateful Dead!" Mr. Branthaver chirped.
Time to roll over again, Beethoven.
In the 1950s came the outbreak of rock 'n' roll. Now, half a century
later, that virus has mutated and infiltrated the temple of classical
music; witness this sell-out crowd for the Baltimore Symphony
Orchestra's world-premier performance of "Dead Symphony No. 6".
Nothing screams mainstream acceptance louder than a lush, guitar-free
tribute to the songbook of Jerry Garcia and all those lesser-known
members of the Grateful Dead, unofficial house band of hippiedom.
Befitting the Dead's peace-love-and-social-revolution roots, that
befuddled middle-aged woman managed to sneak into the concert. The
other 2,399 listeners, ranging from grizzled Woodstock veterans to
their grandchildren, paid full freight.
For about 25 percent of ticket buyers, this marked a first-time visit
to Symphony Hall. That's not a coincidence. According to BSO Vice
President and General Manager Kendra Whitlock Ingram, Music Director
Marin Alsop "is open to all different kinds of program ideas." In
fact, she notes, Miss Alsop herself conducted February's concert
featuring tap-dancing whiz Savion Glover.
Miss Alsop, however, turned over her baton to a guest conductor for
the recent "Video Game Symphony," which drew upon such staples of the
Nintendo cannon as "Sonic the Hedgehog" and "The Legend of Zelda."
Likewise, Lucas Richman would be taking her place at the podium for
"Dead Symphony No. 6."
The move toward diverse, nonclassical programming is simple survival
strategy. Symphony orchestras nationwide need to reach beyond
traditional symphony-goers to remain financially viable. The Boston
Pops most notably pioneered that path decades ago. Today, orchestras
regularly partner up with such singers as James Taylor, Elvis
Costello and Amy Grant or devote evenings to string-laden renditions
of Ella Fitzgerald's or Billy Joel's or Led Zeppelin's greatest hits.
It's a sign of the aging-baby-boomer times that the Grateful Dead -
whose megajams became the quintessential '60s tribal experience and
usually played under a mushroom-shaped cloud of secondhand marijuana
smoke - finally are getting the symphonic treatment.
"Don't bogart that bassoon" could become the mantra of a generation
now more apt to take an acid-reflux trip than pop a tab of LSD. If
Jerry Garcia were still alive (the portly guitarist died of a heart
attack in 1995) he would be eligible to collect Social Security.
It was an appropriately long, strange trip to the concert stage for
"Dead Symphony No. 6." Composer Lee Johnson, a music professor at
LaGrange College in Georgia, got a call 10 years ago from Atlanta
record producer Mike Adams, who floated the idea of creating a
Mr. Johnson, 46, served in the U.S. Army Band and grew up listening
to the decidedly blander sounds of the rock group Kansas. He took the
symphonic challenge but readily admits to being no
"If you look at the counterculture movement, there were many facets -
and not all of them to the public good," Mr. Johnson says. "I have a
Still, once he steeped himself in the Dead phenomenon, he came to
admire the band's "independence, its fierce kind of anti-commercialism."
The lobby of Meyerhoff Symphony Hall was turned into a temporary
flashback museum. Vintage concert posters and gold records graced the
walls. The orchestra played in front of a giant projection screen
alternately filled with abstract, psychedelic images and scores of
candid photos of Mr. Garcia and friends.
The symphony was surprisingly sedate, part a celebration of and part
a requiem for those bygone summers of love. John Callanan, 55, came
with his wife, Jane. His children had given him tickets as a Father's
Day gift. Mr. Callanan earned his Deadhead stripes. He saw the band
live "probably 40 or 50 times," he said.
He thoroughly enjoyed "Dead Symphony No. 6," but inevitably the music
had, he said, a "constricted" feeling, as if Mr. Garcia were being
squeezed into an ill-fitting tuxedo. You can't score good audience
vibes. "At a Dead concert," Mr. Callanan explained, "you were part of
The Callanans might find the energy level cranked up several notches
if they come back Dec. 4, when the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will
be doing a jazz-and-gospelized version of "Messiah" called "Too Hot
Royalty sat just a few rows away from them at "Dead Symphony No. 6."
Carolyn "Mountain Girl" Garcia - one of Jerry's three ex-wives - was
on her feet clapping for each of four standing ovations given
composer Lee Johnson. She described the music as "magically,
deliciously, delicate." At times it brought her to tears.
But Carolyn Garcia is a '60s survivor. She knows nostalgia can be a
powerful drug. Parts of the "Dead Symphony No. 6" presentation proved
too much for her.
"I had to shut my eyes for the photographs," she said.