Jim Hudak – Clayton, CA 02/08/09 Sure, some of the reworked pieces were barely recognizable to their original versions. And the audience was a hoot to watch file into their seats, with conservative symphony season ticket patrons mixed in with tie-dyed clad Deadheads. But that only added to the fun of an event that doesn’t happen along every day. The California Symphony rendered the West Coast premiere of “A Dead Symphony” in a two-night performance at the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek in late January, and attending the January 27th concert was most enjoyable. Atlanta based composer Lee Johnson has reworked 10 songs from the Grateful Dead songbook for full orchestra, with arrangements mostly right on target, if occasionally a bit confusing. Credit the talented director of the orchestra, Barry Jekowsky, for setting the mood. He conducted the “Dead Music” portion of the performance in tie-dyed shirt and tuxedo tails, a nice touch. For many regular symphony goers, this music didn’t exactly connect, but the unique spirit of the evening left a good impression. No standing ovations, but plenty of sincere applause. Those more accustomed to traditional symphonic music still got their fill, too, with a stunningly fine performance of Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” to close the program. This was the perfect way to finish up an evening that touched on the abstract more than a few times during the “Dead Symphony” portion. After all, Stravinsky’s music was written specifically for the symphony orchestra, and all of its dynamics and subtleties were showcased to perfection. “Firebird” displays all of the wonderful aspects that make symphonic music so appealing. But back to the symphonically treated Dead music. It helped a lot if you knew the songs, though the downside of that could be that many of those “songs” never quite emerged as you know them. Still, to feel the power of so many fine musicians working with great precision on music that came mostly from the folk and rock music tradition was its own reward. The songs of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter were featured, with the only Bob Weir co-written song of the evening being a scurrying version of “Sugar Magnolia,” delivered entirely by the woodwinds section. One of the highlights was “St. Stephen,” a song that translated particularly well to the symphony. It powered along nicely, occasionally reminiscent of Gustav Holtz’ piece titled “Saturn,” from his masterpiece “The Planets.” A particularly sweet performance of “Mountains of the Moon” was lovely, as was “Stella Blue,” where enough of the clever changes and melody notes of the original version were left intact to make it feel warm and almost whimsical at times. “Dead Symphony” ends with “Funiculi Funicula,” a song the band used to render somewhat frequently and with some humor. On this night, it ended quite abruptly, sending us into Intermission mode not entirely sure of what we’d just witnessed, but happy all the same. It’s a good sign when the original composers’ music can be reworked by a great arranger, then performed by an excellent symphony orchestra that makes you feel thrilled to have attended. The Firebird Suite that followed the Intermission only served to reinforce the good vibes. After the concert, a four-man panel offered commentary and insights into “Dead Symphony.” About a hundred of the concert-goers stayed to enjoy the panel, which included Dennis McNally, long-time Grateful Dead publicist and author; David Gans, Grateful Dead historian, author, and host of radio shows “Dead To The World” and “The Grateful Dead Hour;” Barry Jekowsky, conductor-director of the California Symphony, and Lee Johnson, composer-arranger. It ended a memorable evening of outstanding music.

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