A World Premiere for Dead Symphony no. 6’
Just as the Grateful Dead felt that its work in the studio as a mere springboard for what would transpire on a concert stage, Lee Johnson deemed his composition, "Dead Symphony no. 6," as not fully coming to life until it was performed by an orchestra in a live setting.
When I interviewed the Emmy Award-winning Callaway Professor of Music Chair at LaGrange College a year ago, he intimated that there was interest by a world-renowned orchestra playing his work but would not reveal much more. Now, he’s opened up in anticipation of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra playing the world premiere of "Dead Symphony no. 6" on Aug. 1 at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. A West Coast premiere takes place in January 2009 with the California Symphony in San Francisco.
"It’s an amazing thing to watch an orchestra rehearse," said Johnson. "Their whole world is making things on the page come to convincing life. So, if something needs to be tweaked, I’ll address it right then. They’ll get their pencils out and start scribbling what they need to do and ‘Boom!’ it happens."
The date for the world premiere concert is no coincidence. Toby Blumenthal, Manager of Facility Sales for Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (home of the BSO), chose it specifically because it happened to fall on what would have been Jerry Garcia’s 66th birthday.
Hearing about the symphony through his older brother, Blumenthal listened to the CD and jumped at the opportunity to host its live debut.
"I wanted to see this live. No orchestra had ever really performed the music of the Grateful Dead, and I know most Deadheads probably feel the same way I feel that it was never really about the studio it was more about the live experience. In some form I wanted to see that experience live in an orchestra setting. So, as I listened to this album, I was like, ‘Why can’t we just do this live?’
It may seem odd on the surface that the person responsible for "Facility Sales" would become the catalyst for this world premiere event, but Blumenthal explained that his concert promotion background and relationship with artists and agents has expanded his role within the BSO organization.
While he mentions that he’s seen Phish 100 times, and that his musical tastes lean towards the jamband genre, he points out, "I’m a fan of music and I think that’s how it should be described. As we both know, jambands are influenced by so many different forms of music. That’s why I’m a ‘music fan.’
He continued, "I’m starting to do what I was doing previously at other venues, to present shows and create unique events like this. The only other person that basically creates or books events in our building is our general manager and Vice President, Kendra Whitlock Ingram. And when you’re General Manager and Vice President, you already have a lot on your plate managing the orchestra and managing the building."
For the world premiere event, Blumenthal has set up the lobby as a counterculture museum featuring memorabilia from the Grateful Dead, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and others. Plus, Baltimore native Amalie R. Rothschild who acted as house photographer for the Fillmore East has donated rare Dead photographs to be auctioned online and at that evening’s performance. Proceeds raised will benefit the BSO.
Presenting a program other than a centuries-old work by classical composers is not uncommon for BSO. In the past the symphony has collaborated with Elvis Costello, Ben Folds, Alison Krauss and The Decemberists. Recently, it performed "Play! A Video Game Symphony," which featured award-winning music from over 20 video games including "Final Fantasy," "Halo," "Sonic the Hedgehog" and Super Mario Bros."
"Part of our goal as an orchestra is our commitment to serve music lovers of all kinds," he said. "We have a long history of playing diverse programs beyond classical. So, the goal of these programs is to introduce a new audience to what an orchestra can do."
Asked whether modern programs can alienate regular patrons, Johnson stated, "I think every orchestra knows how to cultivate a new audience and educate their normal patrons looking for programming that is not just the pieces they’ve heard their whole lives. The sign of a healthy orchestra is that they know that it’s not just one-size fits all. They have to present new things.
"The thing about "Dead Symphony" is the high potential for the number of patrons who may have never been to the concert hall because their band has never been given such a big chunk of a program; certainly not a symphony before. It’s a new excuse to try something they haven’t tried before. And, of course, there are a lot of Grateful Dead fans who love music of every kind. The concert hall is just another one on their list. I think it’s a good indication what an orchestra does when they know that they’re presenting a diverse culture."
With a background that includes writing symphonies, musicals, operas and pieces for experimental films and multi-media installations, Johnson displayed an open-minded approach to his creative endeavors. It’s also something he encourages to his students. Because of this, Mike Adams, a longtime Deadhead and studio owner, felt that Johnson would be the right person to transform the material of the Dead to the classical realm.
In order to write the symphony Johnson felt the need to become immersed in the legendary San Francisco act’s music. With assistance from Adams’ collection, he listened to hours of concert recordings. As he moved from one era to another — the Family Dog days, Winterland and Fillmore East runs, arenas and stadiums — Johnson discovered the intricate arcs of the songs, the subtle and prominent melodies, the time signature changes and the inclusion of styles from rock to blues, gospel, jazz, bluegrass, country and folk.
"I think I may have said in the first interview, this is honest. This is as pure as I can offer. I took my time to learn, study and love what the Grateful Dead did. Then, I knew that if I didn’t pour my heart and soul into it that it would be a noise rather than an offering."
From the very beginning of "Dead Symphony no. 6" one can sense that Johnson not only did his homework but also "got it." Strains of the playful "Funiculi, Funicula" can be heard during "Dead Overture," just as it was played, when the mood struck, during Grateful Dead concerts. He follows this with an interpretation that finds "Saint Stephen" and "Sugar Magnolia" played much earlier than their placement in a set list and incorporates rarely played numbers such as "Blues For Allah" and "If I Had the World To Give."
While the familiar melodies of most songs are recognizable yet morphed into the fabric of strings, horns, percussion and timpani, the arrangement of "Here Comes Sunshine" is stretched from the original in order to evoke the sensation of a new day rising.
More than a decade in the making, Johnson has clearly ascribed to "Dead Symphony no. 6" the same type of aesthetic that made many a GD performance life-changing and life-affirming.
"One of the things that I had to consider is if I recreate an experience that has been imprinted deeply on the listener then, maybe, they don’t need to listen to this. There is no new experience. Once the band is not playing, it’s the notes that the band played and the lyrics aren’t there, then the orchestra has to be able to make a presentation of those phenomenon on their own terms. So, key relationships, tonal relationships, tempo, structure, mood, color, all the stuff that orchestras deal with, that sequence for the symphony had to be one that created a satisfying sense of journey."
In keeping with the spirit of the Dead, Johnson set aside a passage during "Stella Blue" for improvisation by the orchestra. Thus, enabling each performance to be different.
"You might think that that would be highly unusual in the world of orchestra music. It might be not that common, but if you look at the whole history of a piece that we know well around Christmas time, Handel’s "Messiah." After that work became well known, he always added or subtracted something to make sure that the next performance had something that they hadn’t heard before. He was swapping something around, writing a new passage for some wonderful singer to tackle, just because it was a living document to him. It wasn’t set in stone and left alone.
In the case of "Dead Symphony no. 6" he said, "This is a process best to let occur naturally.”