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Trey Anastasio with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, MD – 5/21

Trey Turns Elastic

The Divided Sky (vocals, guitar, strings)
Brian and Robert (same)
The Inlaw Josie Wales (acoustic guitar, oboe, strings)
Water In The Sky (vocals, acoustic guitar, winds, strings, snare drum)
Prologue (guitar, tympani, brass, winds, strings)
First Tube (same)

Intermission

Time Turns Elastic (guitar, harp, tympani, brass, winds, strings)
Let Me Lie (vocals, guitar, strings)
My Friend My Friend -> Guyute (guitar, piano, tympani, brass, winds, strings)

Encore:

If I Could (vocals, guitar, harp, strings)

*****

Phish’s most complex music demands grand orchestral treatment. Now, thanks to conductor Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and composer and arranger Don Hart, its potential to achieve symphonic greatness has never been more apparent.

Trey Anastasio has performed a few times with an orchestra in the past, most recently for the premiere in September 2008 of his collaborative piece with Don Hart, “Time Turns Elastic,” which opened the second set (so to speak) at the Meyerhoff. But this concert in Baltimore was the first time that Trey joined an orchestra one of the country’s finest — for an entire show.

With his Gamehendge “senior study” at Goddard College, Trey proved decades ago that his creativity exceeded his skill with a guitar. One need only hear any versions of Phish’s songs with the Giant Country Horns, or the studio version of “Dirt,” to hear how artfully Trey can work with brass and strings, respectively. His performance with Baltimore’s symphony confirms, however, that over the course of the last twenty years, he has become an excellent composer. In the adept hands of professionals, Trey’s and Hart’s symphonic arrangements — like Phish’s most renowned improvisations are exquisite.

After a standing ovation and rowdy applause, the all-hallowed Phish masterpiece “Divided Sky” opened the concert, with Trey seemingly trying to rein in the power of his Languedoc electric guitar to keep it from overwhelming the strings. According to the concert program’s “Notes from the Artist,” Trey says that while writing “Divided Sky,” he “had a fantasy of Phish being a mini-orchestra,” and that “It’s always been a dream of mine to combine orchestral elements and composition with electric guitar.” Although the dramatic, long pause that occurs during live performances of this song before Trey hits and sustains “The Note” was absent in this version, Trey did improvise in the same place in the song — a few minutes towards its finale where he does in every version. Indeed, while the piece neared its dramatic conclusion, the first violinist stepped-up and appeared to engage Trey in a measure or two of improvisation.

After “Divided Sky” received enormous applause from the hall (full as it was with Phish fans), the fragile ballad “Brian and Robert” began. Although not a fan-favorite, this song is frequently played at Phish shows and Trey appears to love it. This version, with a gorgeous arrangement for the strings, charmed the room. It is certainly “must hear” for any fan of this song as well as those who have never appreciated it before.

The same can be said for “Let Me Lie,” which appeared in the middle of the second set. Although Trey initially started “Let Me Lie” in the wrong key, he realized his mistake after only a few measures, and abruptly stopped it (laughing) to tell everyone about his mistake. Fans were amused and forgiving, although I couldn’t help but wonder what the other professionals on stage thought. (Have you ever witnessed a musician, while soloing with an orchestra, re-start a piece during a public performance?)

The spectacle of Trey with his Languedoc on stage at the elegant Meyerhoff reminded me of seeing Phish at Spokane’s Opera House in October 1995, another enchanting room with magnificent acoustics. (Of course, after that show, there was nobody selling nitrous balloons beside the nearest parking garage, as there was post-show at the Meyerhoff.) While Trey is to be applauded for exercising supreme discipline with his Languedoc — keeping its volume from crushing the symphony and rattling the hall — this generated some tension between him and the orchestra, particularly during a song as delicate as “Brian and Robert.”

This tension, however, was effortlessly diffused when Trey used an acoustic, such as on “The Inlaw Josie Wales,” which followed “Brian and Robert” and similarly featured a delightful arrangement. My principal complaint about the concert was that, despite the pure, precious tone of Trey’s Languedoc, greater use of an acoustic guitar which complimented the strings so well would have been more appropriate.

Before “Water in the Sky,” Trey mentioned the recent death of his sister, Kristy Manning, from neuroendocrine cancer. She was only 46 years old. Trey dedicated the song to Kristy’s son, Jason, who was in attendance. Trey then gave one of the most moving performances I’ve ever seen from him. According to her obituary, Kristy was an environmentalist and author, and her book The Ecology of Place “described a world in which land is consumed sparingly, cities and towns are vibrant and green, local economies thrive, and citizens work together to create places of enduring value.” Trey’s voice wavered and flowed with emotion through the lyrics (“listen as she speaks to you, hear the voices flutter through ”), over sublime strings and gentle brushwork on a snare drum. It was impossible not to think of the suffering that he and his family have gone through in recent months and years.

The other Phish works performed during the evening, such as “First Tube” (first set closer), “My Friend My Friend” -> “Guyute,” and “If I Could” (encore), had lovely orchestral arrangements, courtesy of Don Hart, and were frankly magical in this context. Whether you grew-up listening to orchestral music or not, hearing “First Tube” with tympani and brass is, simply put, AWESOME, and you should hear it for yourself. Sure, more tympani and brass would have made it even better (“More cowbell?”), but it was nevertheless the concert’s musical highlight.

“Time Turns Elastic,” an entertaining half-hour piece that Trey co-wrote with Don Hart, opened the second set. With several movements, it vaguely reminded me of Phish’s most exploratory “Type II” jams in the past, like the Mud Island “Tweezer” or the Orlando “Stash.” Not because it raged or, for that matter, aimlessly noodled (it is a composition, after all), but because some of its themes and even lyrics sounded suspiciously familiar. In fact, Phish fans might experience d vu while listening carefully to it, because there are some plaintive, soaring melodies within it that they might recall having heard within Trey’s solos during various improvisations at distant Phish shows. (But don’t ask me to identify them — I am hoping you will.)

Apparently, Trey has arranged “Time Turns Elastic” for Phish, and it will be on Phish’s next studio release. Both it and the orchestral, 28-minute version also will soon be available on iTunes. So don’t be surprised if it is performed by Phish for the first time at Fenway Park.

Trey’s music has never had as wide an audience as it has now, and his performance at the Meyerhoff in a way shows if Phish’s ten hours of music at Hampton in March did not — that his sobriety is revitalizing his work. May this refreshing focus and clarity stay with him.

*****

Scores of professionally-trained musicians count themselves among Phish’s biggest fans. One of the patrons of Trey’s performance at the Meyerhoff with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was Andrew Hitz, a tuba player with the Boston Brass, who has seen Phish over 150 times.

CD: What impressed you the most, and least, about the concert?

AH: For the concert as a whole, I was very impressed by the flow of the show and by all of the thought that obviously went into writing the orchestrations. Some of the arrangements were written in a very transparent way that actually shed new light on some tunes that were already very familiar. In particular, there were some accompanying lines in “Divided Sky” which really jumped out of the context of the tune in a way that they don’t during a Phish performance.

From a technical standpoint, the thing that impressed me most about Trey’s playing specifically was his articulation, especially in his extreme soft playing. Everything was so clean and sounded effortless, which is not easy to do on any instrument at a very soft dynamic. The other thing that was really on display was the beautiful sound that Trey gets out of his Languedoc. The acoustics and the setting were ideal to hear Trey’s gorgeous tone.

My favorite arrangement of the evening was the encore, “If I Could.” I thought the coolest part of any arrangement was when the entire orchestra dropped out and the harp alone played the repeating, descending 16th note pattern. That was a very cool moment. But the most Phish moment of the evening was definitely the last minute and a half of “First Tube.” Classic Trey doing what he does best: tension and release.

The aspect of the show that I liked the least was that more of the orchestra was not utilized for more of the Phish arrangements. Several tunes only featured one member of the percussion section and two French horns out of the entire brass section. The arrangements were well-written, but I think they could have utilized the brass and percussion more.

CD: I was disappointed that the xylophone wasn’t used. Are there any Phish songs that weren’t performed that you hope Trey arranges for orchestra and performs with a symphony in the future?

AH: The first one that comes to mind is “Fast Enough For You.” This is my favorite Phish ballad ever written, by far, and I think a beautiful orchestration could be done of that piece. I also think that it is some of the best songwriting that Trey has ever done. The other things I would have liked to have seen would have been a complete re-enactment of set II of 5/7/94 at The Bomb Factory and “Kung.”

CD: What composers or specific pieces would you recommend to Phish fans interested in hearing more symphonic music?

AH: The first composer who comes to mind for Phish fans to check out is Gustav Mahler and in particular his first three symphonies. A long time ago I wrote a review on RMP [Rec.Music.Phish] comparing the 12/9/94 Tweezer with Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, which happens to be my favorite piece written within the classical music repertoire. Mahler is the classical master of tension and release and, similar to Phish, listening to his music takes patience, but there is a huge pay off in the end. His symphonies are in some ways parallels of longer, epic Phish jams from the ’93 to ’95 period. I would highly recommend the City of Birmingham recording with Simon Rattle conducting Mahler 2. Truly amazing. One of my greatest days as a Phish fan was 11/28/98 when I saw the Boston Symphony perform Mahler 1 at one o’clock at Symphony Hall in Boston with fellow Phish head Brian Lipman, and then headed to the Worcester Centrum for a truly remarkable show that evening. That was easily one of the best Phish shows I’ve ever seen and I honestly couldn’t tell you which concert was better that day.

The other composer I would recommend would be Beethoven. The late Beethoven symphonies are some of the happiest releases that you will ever find in music. Beethoven 7 recorded by the Berlin Philharmonic with Herbert von Karajan conducting would be one of my desert island recordings. He recorded the piece three times with that orchestra and they are all fantastic. The 2nd movement of Beethoven 7 is in my opinion the most beautiful piece of music ever written, and the 4th movement is as euphoric as any music you have ever heard.

Charlie Dirksen is an antitrust lawyer in San Francisco, and is also the Vice President and Counsel of the Mockingbird Foundation, an all-volunteer non-profit founded by Phish fans that has raised more than $600,000 for the benefit of music education for children. He first saw Phish at the Paradise in Boston on October 6, 1989.

Andrew Hitz has been the tuba player for the Boston Brass since 2000. He first saw Phish on December 31, 1993, from the 15th row of the Worcester Centrum. Fenway Park will be his 152nd show.

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