A Night of Firsts at the Symphony

Photo shamelessly cropped from NPR’s story on Dead Symphony no. 6

A friend and I went to see the Baltimore Symphony perform “A Symphonic Tribute to the Grateful Dead” at  Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore this evening, what would have been Jerry Garcia’s 66th birthday. While I’m not the biggest deadhead in the world, I can certainly appreciate the musicality of Mr. Garcia and his gang. I figured that spending the night listening to a symphonic version of their ditties wouldn’t be so bad. And one of my favorite orchestral works of all time, Berstein’s Overture to Candide was on the program.

It seems that when you combine the refinement and class of the traditional symphony-going audience with the summer of free love embracing hippies that constitute a large majority of grateful dead fans, you end up with a unique audience for a symphony orchestra. I’d like to present you with a “List of Firsts” I witnessed this evening:

  1. First time I’ve ever seen people were tye dye to the symphony. Some “dressed up” their tye dye t-shirts a bit by wearing a suit jacket on top of them. That was a nice touch with the jeans. (Disclaimer: I wore jeans, but no tye dye.)
  2. First time I’ve seen people (lots of them) wear baseball caps to the symphony. There were probably 100 people in baseball caps, cowboy hats, and other non-traditional head coverings.
  3. First time I’ve seen security guards at a symphony. They were checking bags as people entered, and also stationed around the concert hall.
  4. First time I’ve seen security guards attempt to throw a person out WHILE the orchestra played. The guard did it in hushed voices and hand gestures, but it was still wildly distracting. The man he was trying to throw out was in the middle of one of the center orchestra rows and refused to leave. After several minutes of stern looks and angry gestures, the guard gave up.
  5. First time I’ve seen the guy in the row directly in front of me light up a joint and start smoking it WHILE the orchestra played. This was not the guy the security guard was attempting to kick out. And I’ve got pictures of him sneaking a drag.

Oh, and Dead Symphony no. 6 was not at all my cup of tea. Pandora, the online Musical Genome Project, says that what makes a Grateful Dead song is the electric guitar solo, the vocal harmonies, and  major key tonality. Dead Sympony No. 6 was anything but in a major key. Slow and dissonant seemed to be the theme, with movement after movement of music that grated on the ears and had seemingly little to do with the Grateful Dead. While some of Garcia’s melodic themes were easy to pick out in the composition, others seemed hidden behind layers of orchestral texture that had to be deciphered to hear the way it related to the Dead’s music. And while the melodies were there, the character and harmony associated with them was decidely not rock n’ roll like. Perhaps that’s what composer Lee Johnson was aiming for, but it didn’t quite work for me.

That isn’t to say there weren’t some highlights. The sixth movement, “Sugar Magnolia” highlighted the BSO’s outstanding woodwind section who kept up with conductor Lee Richman. Sadly, Magnolia was the shortes movement of the night and was buttressed between “Blues for Allah” which featured the strings and more depressing atonality and “To Lay Me Down” which seemed to stretch on and on.

Dead Symphony no. 6 was the second half of the program, with two popular works from Bertstein before intermission; his “West Side Story Suite” and the “Overture to Candide.” The audience was appreciative of West Side Story, too appreciateve at points when Richman had to hold his hand up to the audience to try to keep the applause down. Sadly, when the piece was finally over and the applause died down, the noise didn’t. People got up from their seats, latecomers were allowed into the hall, and conversations were struck up.

Richman waited on the podium for several moments before launching into Candide, hoping the audience would quiet down, but eventually seemed to give up. The BSO played the frantic piece well, from what I could hear, but it seemed that Richman was eager to speed them through it since half the audience was engaged in conversation for most of the overture and not listening anyway.

Audience participation was fairly restrained during Dead Symphony no. 6, with some spontaneous clapping as pictures of the band and Jerry Garcia were shown on a large screen behind the orchestra. The standing ovation at the end, though, seemed to indicate that the crowd of dead heads had loved it much more than I had.

I applaud Maestra Alsop and the BSO for taking on projects that reach out to crowds that wouldn’t normally be filling the seats at the Meyerhoff, and on performing pieces by living composers. I might not always enjoy the performances, but it’s good to see them try new things. If you haven’t seen them lately, check out their 2008-2009 season. There’s something for just about everyone, and you don’t have to travel all the way to Baltimore, since you can catch them at their DC-area venue the red-line accessible Strathmore.

A decade ago, Ben Stanfield found himself at the intersection of politics and technology as he wandered nomadically around the country managing congressional races. But when he moved to DC 6 years ago, he found that the intersection had become, in the grand tradition of L’Enfant, a circle where politics and technology were joined by science, photography and a host of smaller side streets of interest. These days, he works as a Macintosh Server Administrator for a large governmental health institute in Bethesda. In his spare time, he’s an avid photographer, charter member at HacDC, and serves on the Board of Directors of the Columbia Heights Youth Club. In 2005 he founded of Draft Obama, a national grassroots movement to convince Barack Obama to run for President. Everything he writes here speaks for itself and not on behalf of any other group, organization, person, or any of his other personalities.

One thought on “A Night of Firsts at the Symphony

  1. One other odd thing about the dead symphony: The only recording of the Grateful Dead symphony is by the Russian National Orchestra. Can’t imagine there are a whole lot of dead heads in Russia.