Orchestra to premiere professor’s Dead Symphony
Sept. 17, 2010

It’s been 15 years since Lee Johnson, Fuller E. Callaway Professor of Music, was approached about composing a symphony based on the music of the Grateful Dead. And it’s been two years since the Dead Symphony No. 6 had its world premiere in Baltimore.

Finally, the work that won praise from music critics and Grateful Dead fans alike comes home Oct. 5, as the LaGrange Symphony Orchestra presents the Southeastern premiere of Johnson’s piece. But the music has evolved since its premiere in 2008.

“I took the experience of having the piece on the road, hearing what worked and what didn’t work,” Johnson says. “I listened to this movement and that movement and saw that they failed to soar, so I decided to remove them and strengthen the symphony. I was able to create a revised concert version that will be premiered here.”

Johnson says the initial idea for the symphony came in 1995 from friend and producer Mike Adams.

“Mike is a Deadhead (fan), and he asked me to see if it was possible to make a symphony off what he considers great, symphonic sounds – the music of the Grateful Dead,” Johnson says. “To a composer, of course, great sounds have to be translatable into what is appropriate for the orchestra. Some melodies may sound great on a guitar with a singer, but they will die in the midst of 75 orchestral musicians.”

Once he heard the music of the Grateful Dead, Johnson knew he was on to something. It resonated with him, but he knew his work would be carefully scrutinized by the Grateful Dead’s legions of fans.

“They have some tremendous, and I think fair, expectations,” he says. “They want to have their legacy respected, and they want to share their fascination for what the Grateful Dead did and meant to them.”

He didn’t need to worry about their reaction. 

Writing about Johnson’s work, famed Grateful Dead biographer and publicist Dennis McNally said, “… I flinched a bit when I first heard the idea of a symphonic take on the Dead; I feared ‘Dead with strings.’  That’s emphatically not Lee Johnson’s Dead Symphony. He got the Dead’s music, which is rooted in improvisation.  Since having a 75-piece symphony improvise is … a bad idea, he did the improvising himself in the score, and the result is a take on familiar melodies, with variations, and not a simple new coat of strings. It’s a superb piece of music, and something special for LaGrange.”

Grateful Dead fans have filled audiences at previous concerts in Baltimore, California and Chicago. Johnson says he’s hoping to see Deadheads at the LaGrange concert.

“They are usually easy to spot,” he says with a laugh. “(Symphony concerts) are usually more of a formal occasion, but the Grateful Dead audience brings an absolutely raw energy to the concert hall. Every maestro and every house manager has said, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this before.’ To have an audience so engaged is very exciting. For new music, it’s a great opportunity.”

On the night of the concert, Dr. Toni Anderson, Chair of the Music Department at LaGrange College, will provide a brief preview of the evening’s music beginning at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets may be purchased in advance from the symphony office by calling (706) 882-0662 prior to the day of the concert. Tickets will also be sold at the Callaway Auditorium box office beginning at 7 p.m. the night of the concert. Adult tickets are $25 for mezzanine seating and $15 for seats in the orchestra and gallery. Special value seats in the first four rows of the orchestra section are available for $5. All tickets for students sixth grade and older are $5. Children fifth grade and younger are admitted free with an adult.

For more information or to purchase tickets, call (706) 882-0662 or e-mail info@lagrangesymphony.org

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