Lee Johnson - Dead Symphony, No. 6

Dead Symphony Comes to Baltimore

[An Interview with Lee Johnson]

First Appeared in The Music Box, July 2008, Volume 15, #7

Written by John Metzger

Tue July 29, 2008, 06:30 AM CDT

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Things have a tendency to move quite slowly in the world of classical music. Itís one of the many unlikely similarities that the genre shares with rockís improvisational pioneers: the Grateful Dead. Three years after it was recorded by the Russian National Orchestra, and more than 13 months after it was issued on CD, Lee Johnsonís Dead Symphony, No. 6 finally will make its debut as a public performance piece on August 1 at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore, Maryland. Although it might seem as if it has taken quite awhile for the project to come to its ultimate fruition, the staging of the event actually has moved rather swiftly.

"Symphony orchestras have commitments that they make. Their seasons are scheduled a lot farther out, so they canít quite react as fast as we might imagine," explained Johnson, while speaking by cell phone from his car. "[The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra] jumped on making this concert happen, right at the release."

The idea of bringing Dead Symphony, No. 6 to Baltimore was sparked when Toby Blumenthal, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestraís Facility Sales Manager, first learned about the project from the publicity surrounding the CD. "Heís the early champion for making it happen," said Johnson. "The first call came from him, and it was quite an interesting process that followed."

"[The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra] has such a commitment to innovative programming ó from the music director on down to the audience," Johnson stated. "To her credit, Maestra Marin Alsop has transformed the orchestra. Even its financial health has blossomed under her leadership. Sheís highly respected as a new music interpreter."

"They have told me over and over again that this is a city that loves non-traditional programming and exploring new things," he continued. "I am impressed with how seriously they take new music and musical culture as well as how deep their interest is in the Grateful Dead," he added.

Initially, the thought had been to debut Dead Symphony, No. 6 in San Francisco. "[The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra] made it very clear that they wanted the world premiere rights," Johnson stated. "Unfortunately, Maestra Alsop had already made commitments for a music festival that she is involved in, so she ended up not being able to conduct the premiere. One of her regular guest conductors Lucas Richman [Music Director of the Knoxville Symphony] will be on the podium."

Other performances of Dead Symphony, No. 6 also are in the works. Said Johnson, "The California Symphony in Marin County has two performances of it set for January, and they are out of control with excitement as far as I can tell."

After the West Coast premiere of Dead Symphony, No. 6, Johnson will travel to Chicago in March to mark his compositionís debut at an educational institution. "Itís with Saint Xavier University. They are building a whole event around it. They want even more new music written for their concert, and they see it as a way to interface their educational and cultural objectives into one program," said Johnson.

Perhaps, one of the most intriguing aspects of the live performance of Dead Symphony, No. 6 is that it will retain the improvisational segment that was incorporated into the movement known as Stella Blue. "The score is full of indications for the players and for the conductor," explained Johnson. "You brush up against chaos when you have people moving in their own direction in an orchestra. Thatís the excitement and enjoyment of it. It just might not work!"

"Weíll expand it a little bit, too," he continued. "Iím very eager to work on that in rehearsal. Most likely the improvisation will continue even as Bird Song gets underway. The [musicians] have the recordings, so, they have some concept of what I approved when I was conducting. Itís in good hands. Orchestras like to have a chance get unbuttoned with how interpret music. From what I hear, they are primed and ready."

In addition to the performance of Dead Symphony, No. 6, the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall will be transformed into a showroom containing an array of Grateful Dead memorabilia; an auction of Amalie Rothschildís rare photographs from New York Cityís Fillmore East will be held to benefit the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; and Pro Video Group will augment the program with a psychedelic light show. "I havenít been in communication with [the Pro Video Group]. They are working directly with the orchestra. Itís the Baltimore Symphonyís idea and their plan. They want some sizzle for this event, which is cool. I canít wait to see it!" Johnson exclaimed.

Considering that the day that Dead Symphony, No. 6 makes its world premiere would have marked Jerry Garciaís 66th birthday, itís hard to imagine a more fitting tribute to the Grateful Deadís reluctant leader. Said Johnson, "For the Grateful Dead community, this is the most prestigious level of orchestral music making, which is a good indication of this piece. It is certainly exciting for me, and the music and the legacy of the Grateful Dead are being taken as seriously as possible. This is the high orbit of symphonic performance."

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Of Further Interest...

Grateful Dead - Road Trips, Vol. 1, No. 2: October '77

From Chaos to Beauty: The Transformation of The Grateful Dead Movie

Paul McCartney - Ecce Cor Meum (Behold My Heart)

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Dead Symphony, No. 6 is NOT available from Amazon.
It, along with other works by Lee Johnson, can be purchased
through his web site!

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Copyright © 2008 The Music Box