| LIVE SHOW REVIEW |
Dead Symphony No. 6|
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Aug. 1, 2008
by Tony Sclafani
Baltimore's ritzy Meyerhoff Symphony Hall seemed more like a rock concert for the world premiere of composer Lee Johnson's "Dead Symphony No. 6" on Friday, Aug. 1, 2008 – which would have been Jerry Garcia's 66th birthday. Johnson's symphony, which was released on disc in 2007, recast ten Grateful Dead tunes into a classical suite with nary an electric guitar.
But that didn't stop legions of Deadheads from making the premiere a sell-out show. It also didn't stop anyone's appreciation of the music, which was officially billed as "A Tribute to the Grateful Dead" by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, who performed the work.
Although Johnson's rendering of the Dead's songs took them far away from their rock roots, his work was greeted with near-maniacal enthusiasm by the crowd. Some in attendance were decked out in their Deadhead finest, and the contrast with the well-groomed orchestra made for a unique blend of tie dye and tuxedos. An art exhibit and auction of classic rock-related items in the lobby also made the experience seem closer to Winterland than Wagner.
The wildness factor was upped by the fact that the audience included two Dead-related celebrities in Carolyn "Mountain Girl" Adams (Garcia's ex-wife) and John Perry Barlow (Bob Weir's lyricist and lifelong buddy). After being introduced at the concert's outset, both were greeted with thunderous cheers that must have bewildered the Meyerhoff's season box-seat ticket holders.
The first segment featured two Leonard Bernstein pieces immaculately played by the orchestra and was received well by the audience (we'll interpret one fan's singular shout of "Jerry!" as a positive sign). After conductor Lucas Richman and Johnson introduced "Dead Symphony," a sort of surrealism set in. Who would have thought in 1967 that one day you'd have one of the country's most pre-eminent orchestras playing Dead melodies to the backdrop of psychedelic projections and vintage photos of the Dead? Who would have thought you'd have a conductor decked out in a "Skull and Roses" T-shirt?
But, for the most part, the "Dead Symphony" worked. Johnson's recasting of the songs was mostly successful, sometimes sublime and sometimes, well, strange. "Saint Stephen" was all majesty and might, with its classic riff getting pummeled by the players by the segment's end. A dissonant "Mountains of the Moon" and "Blues for Allah" would probably have brought a smile to the face of Tom Constanten, the Dead's short-lived keyboardist and avant garde composer.
The fetching melody of Bob Weir's "Sugar Magnolia" was instantly recognizable, but seemed almost trivialized by the sprightly piccolo-fueled arrangement. By contrast, "Stella Blue" – one of Garcia's best melodies – was suitably moody, and almost made you wish Johnson had melded it with another slow Garcia classic, "Ship of Fools."
Speaking of segues, Johnson's work would probably have been more effective had he taken a cue from his inspiration and woven one piece into the next with no breaks. Instead, he divided the songs up and the piece often lost momentum because of the massive audience applause between segments (technically a symphony hall no-no, but what the hell).
Johnson also rescued a few tunes from obscurity. Among these were "To Lay Me Down," (from Garcia's first solo album) and "If I Had the World to Give," a romantic, soulful Garcia-Hunter ballad from Shakedown Street that was rarely performed live.
Best of all may have been "China Doll," the circular, haunting tune Garcia penned for From the Mars Hotel. Here, the musicians wrung pathos out of a melody that proved Garcia could compose with far more subtlety than the Dead detractors ever gave him credit for.
Along with an intricate section dedicated to the semi-forgotten classic "Here Comes Sunshine," the piece made you wonder what Garcia would have made of the proceedings had he lived to witness them. There was no mistaking the audience's enthusiasm, though. The "Dead Symphony," after all, may not have been very long, but it sure was strange and it definitely was a trip.
For more information on the "Dead Symphony No. 6," visit: www.deadsymphony.com.
Photo copyright Amalie R. Rothschild