I wanted to avoid making anyone at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall feel like a spectacle, so I ducked into the gift shop to jot down a few notes. In the lobby, mostly middle-aged Baltimore Symphony Orchestra patrons milled about in tie-dye t-shirts, teashades, and sunflower dresses. At 7:14 p.m. I had detected my first (and, sadly, only) whiff of marijuana, emanating from a group of youngish gentlemen hovering by a close-up photo of John and Yoko. Now a man was performing some kind of chi remedy on a guy with a broken wrist, cupping his hands and sending waves of healing energy through the afflicted’s arm. Carolyn Garcia—-you may know her as Mountain Girl—-chatted with folks, many of whom sheepishly asked her to sign their T-shirts. One of the T-shirts read “Deadheads for Obama,” and approximately two out of every three conversations included the phrase, “When I saw them back in 1977…” Meanwhile, a jester pranced around with a handful of flowers. “Every lady gets a flower,” he chanted. “Every pretty lady.” One such lady ingeniously converted her cleavage into a vase.
I surveyed the gift shop. A large woman with a hairnet and a dancing-bear muumuu was browsing. This was the world premiere performance of Lee Johnson’s Dead Symphony No. 6, “An Orchestral Tribute to the Music of the Grateful Dead”—-not to mention Jerry Garcia‘s 66th birthday—-and the store’s silly musical trinkets and pretentious classical recordings seemed ill-suited to the evening’s proceedings. That is, except for one small novelty book, an edition of the “Wisdom from our Elders” series entitled Age Doesn’t Matter Unless You’re a Cheese.
Steve Harq—a short, smiling, gray-bearded man in purple tie-dye who was a beacon of ebullience as he bounced around the lobby—proudly embodied that philosophy. “Jerry’s what brought me here,” he said. “That was the best chapter of my life, 25 years on Dead tour. I think it’s great that someone took that spirit—the spirit of Jerry and Robert Hunter—-and is using it, which is what Jerry would’ve liked. He was so diverse in his music. He—-I’m sure he’s smiling and saying, ‘That’s fucking cool!'”
More on the concert, plus audio tracks, after the jump.
Steve paused, and his friend tried to show him a copy of the program. Steve refused to look. Under no circumstances did he want to know the set list before the show.
“You ever see them in concert?” he asked me.
“No, unfortunately,” I said. “Too young.”
“Well then, you have an especially good time tonight, my friend,” he said. “Because, you know, it doesn’t live too many places like this anymore.”
I did have an especially good time, although I have to say that the performance was surprising. I expected a certain amount of stilted interpretation, and I was prepared to feel estranged from some otherwise familiar musical moments. But many of the movements had a remarkably darksome tenor to them, taking on some serious emotional heft in an orchestral context. Part of this is attributable to a largely misguided visual presentation behind the orchestra, which alternated between screen-saver visuals straight out of Windows Media Player and old photos of the Dead. These tribute elements imbued the music with an overwhelming nostalgia, and at points distracted the symphony from standing as its own creation. As one audience member noted after the show, “It was like a eulogy rather than a birthday.”
Some pieces, however, really had the house spellbound—in particular “If I Had the World To Give,” which was masterfully done in string quartet, and a heartbreaking rendition of “China Doll,” the song that first inspired Johnson to compose the symphony. In the best moments, the levels of elegy were tempered by the music’s unbending relevance—not to mention the fact that it’s just so darn pretty. During “Blues for Allah,” when a single hand, in the formation of a single peace sign, emerged slowly from the sea of silent heads in the front half of the hall, its silhouette falling against the conductor’s white tuxedo jacket, I found myself awestruck by the peculiarity of the cultural moment: here I was listening to these songs now, this way, so many years later, after all these things had happened
Steve was right—-it doesn’t live too many places like that anymore. I don’t go to the symphony often, but I can’t say I’ve ever seen a packed house, never mind one hooting and hollering the way this did. Nor had I heard someone shout drunkenly in the middle of an orchestral piece, until a woman yelled “Sugar Magnolia!” in the middle of Leonard Bernstein‘s West Side Story Symphonic Dances, which comprised the first half of the program. (She did it during “Maria,” and I have to admit, she was on to something. After all, wasn’t Maria Tony’s sugar magnolia?)
Other than a few unseemly outbursts, most people were enthusiastic but well-behaved. Behind me, a woman apologized to a man who had to stand up so she could get to her seat. “Don’t be sorry,” he said. “Be joyful! You’re here!” The man, I discovered later, had gotten tickets to the show from his children for father’s day. He was wearing a Dead T-shirt they bought him for Christmas. By the end of the evening it had hit me: like its creators, like its listeners, like its country, for better or for worse—-music too grows up
LISTEN: “If I Had the World to Give”
LISTEN: “Blues for Allah”
LISTEN: “St. Stephen”
Photo by Valerie Steinberg