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Dead Symphony at the Cabrillo Festival

Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music

Date: Sun August 9, 2009 8:00pm

The music of the Grateful Dead, arguably rock ’n’ roll’s first jam band, is staging a second coming, in symphonic garb, in the land where the band began, 44 years ago. Composer Lee Johnson’s Dead Symphony No. 6, based on the Dead canon, will be showcased on Aug. 9, the third day of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz. The West Coast premiere was presented by the California Symphony last spring.

Expect to see Deadheads (the term for die-hard fans in tie-dyed T-shirts) seated blissfully among the Cabrillo regulars. Johnson, an Emmy-winner for his film collaboration, points out that his only symphonic work based on the music of others was conceived and commissioned by a devoted Deadhead, Mike Adams, like Johnson a resident of Georgia. Adams also financed a 2007 recording by the Russian National Orchestra (available from www.deadsymphony.com and at the Festival). Deadheads and orchestra aficionados have much in common, Lee believes. “They’re [both] live music communities. And they’re well-trained listeners who can listen to a theme or motif being transformed, with all of the compositional techniques for how you’d modify or extend anything organic.”

Johnson, who teaches at LaGrange College in Georgia, has found inspiration for others of his nine symphonies in human rights, Jewish philosophy, and even diving. But he was not a Deadhead, and had to be introduced by Adams to the songbook of guitarist and banjoist Jerry Garcia, who assembled the Grateful Dead in San Francisco in 1965. The Dead Symphony’s dozen movements, briefer than the Dead’s trademark long, live jams, bear the titles of such songs as Saint Stephen, Here Comes Sunshine, Stella Blue, China Doll, and Sugar Magnolia (the last of which Cabrillo Music Director Marin Alsop adopted for the name of her Aug. 9 program, which also includes a composition titled Rave-Elation (Schindowski Mix) by Australian composer Matthew Hindson). The Dead songs, however, are not merely dressed up in strings by Johnson, but are variously reimagined, deconstructed, and revoiced, with a genial artfulness evocative of the approach of Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copland to American folk themes.

What may seem somewhat retro and a turn away from the avant-garde is a sign of the times, Johnson explains. “The change that has happened in the compositional community of the last few years is that the language they’re using and the interest of composers seem to be swinging back into the same areas of interest that audiences have,” he says. “And the result is that you can have something that belongs to a culture, even though it’s brand new.” Johnson’s particular goal “is to make the genre of the symphony something that an American audience would feel is all about them and is something they just would not want to miss, rather than something you would respond to politely.”

Response to the Dead Symphony among some of its more discriminating observers has been so far enthusiastic. Mike Adams felt “stunned.” Former Grateful Dead publicist Dennis McNally is satisfied that the symphony “honors Jerry Garcia’s compositional skills” and that it “documents that great music is endlessly malleable, and that it can be transposed in style into many forms and still make sense and be beautiful.” McNally, who authored the definitive book A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead, and who will join Lee and Dead author and radio host David Gans in a panel discussion at Cabrillo, notes that Alsop had attempted, without success, to contact Garcia before his premature death in 1995. “She obviously recognized that he was one of the outstanding musicians of Northern California,” says McNally, “and that’s what Cabrillo is about, is reaching out to a larger community.”

Jeff Kaliss has featured and reviewed classical, jazz, rock, and world musics and other entertainment for the San Francisco Chronicle and a host of other regional, national, international, and web-based publications. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, and is the author of I Want to Take You Higher: The Life and Times of Sly & the Family Stone (Backbeat Books) and numerous textbook and encyclopedia entries, album liner notes, and festival program notes.