Resurrecting the Dead

The BSO channels Jerry Garcia and company with the world premiere of Dead Symphony No. 6

July 31, 2008|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,Sun reporter

From the name the Grateful Dead gave its first album, Live Dead, to Jerry Garcia's sudden death at a retreat called Serenity Knolls, the band was always a paradox: virtuosos with a sloppy sound, anti-materialists who made a mint, an act that lived in the moment yet rocked on for 40 years.

But even Garcia, a man who mined old blues and country for his psychedelic wanderings, might have had trouble seeing this coming. Tomorrow night at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, on what would have been Garcia's 66th birthday, tie-dye meets tie and tails as the BSO performs the world premiere of a work known as Dead Symphony No. 6. (The orchestra will perform a Led Zeppelin-based work Saturday.)

The symphony, by Georgia-based composer Lee Johnson, turns 12 Grateful Dead songs into movements, weaving them into a single orchestral work. "This isn't simple pop music; it's a full-fledged symphony," says David Coombs, contrabassoonist for the BSO. "Jerry would be flattered beyond measure," says Garcia's widow, Carolyn Adams Garcia, better known to Deadheads by her 1960s-vintage nickname, Mountain Girl. (She'll be in attendance.) "Flattered and startled, that is. The composer took liberties in re-imagining the music. It's familiar, yet it's new. It's wonderful."

It's no longer news when musicians other than the Dead take on Dead music, an idiosyncratic form that fused Coltrane-style improvisation with rock. Bluegrass, jazz and jam-band players have covered, imitated and sprung from the Dead tradition and wandered their terrain.

But classical music, scored for woodwinds, cellos and tympanis? This may be a first.

"The Dead have roots in exploration," says Johnson, who began work on the piece - the sixth of his 12 symphonies - shortly after Garcia died of heart failure in 1995. "The challenge was not to replicate Dead music, but to find in it the elements that are flattered by ... the sound of the symphony. There were a lot of rich choices."

Fittingly for the Dead, whose songs are full of characters who live at society's margins, the idea started off music's beaten path. An Atlanta-based rock producer and Deadhead, Mike Adams, decided it was important to mark Garcia's passing in classical style. He went straight to Johnson, a man who has always felt composers fail to appreciate American life as a subject for classical music.

He'd heard of the Dead, but barely. "I was accustomed to dead composers; that's about it," he says with a laugh. He immersed himself in Dead music, history and lore. "The countercultural experience of the Dead was perfect [material] for a symphony," he says.

With difficulty, he winnowed the canon down, weaving themes from 12 songs into a larger work.

"He did what composers used to do 400 years ago," says Coombs, the contrabassoonist. "You'd start with something simple, say a Gregorian chant, and write your mass based on that. He took snippets of the tunes and wrote whole new pieces."

Yet the band's fans will spot many Dead-like elements: a range of emotions, from the sadness of "China Doll" through the verve of "Sugar Magnolia"; passages of improvisation; and even some rarely heard works, like Garcia's "If I Had the World to Give," that Johnson feels Deadheads - not to mention classical music fans - may not fully appreciate for years.

Johnson eventually took the symphony to Moscow, where he had worked many times with the Russian National Orchestra, and they recorded it (the CD is available at Tomorrow will be the first time it is performed live.

It was Toby Blumenthal, a Dead fan who manages rentals of the Meyerhoff building, who pitched Dead Symphony No. 6 to BSO programmers. Lucas Richman, music director of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, will serve as guest conductor.

Patrons will walk through a lobby transformed into a "countercultural museum," a display of '60s-era photos and memorabilia. Artist Amalie R. Rothschild, a Baltimore native who was unofficial house photographer at New York's Fillmore East theater from 1968-1973, will display and auction original images of the band, with proceeds going to the BSO. A psychedelic light show will play on a screen backstage during the performance.

The BSO hopes the show, like so many in recent years, will draw nontraditional audiences.

"When I heard we were doing this, I thought, 'Huh?' " says Coombs, who saw some Dead shows as a music student years ago. "I was learning to play exactly what the composer wanted; these guys were taking music and changing it into something completely different.

"You know, [Johnson] has done that, too," he says. "This ought to be fun."

"Dead Symphony: A Symphonic Tribute to the Grateful Dead" is set for 8 p.m. tomorrow at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. "BSO Rocks With the Music of Led Zeppelin" is at 8 p.m. Saturday at Pier Six Pavilion, 731 Eastern Ave. Tickets $25-$45. Call 410-783-8000 or go to

Q&A with Lee Johnson

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