'Dead Symphony': Gratefully, It's a New Orchestral Trip

Monday, August 4, 2008

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.

-- Ronni Reich

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