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
“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
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
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
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 email@example.com