- The Washington Times - Monday, August 4, 2008

A middle-aged woman with a thatch of gray hair wandered the lobby of Baltimore’s Meyerhoff Symphony Hall on Friday night looking dazed and confused. Her behavior was symptomatic of a rare medical condition: civility overdose.

“Why is everybody so mellow?” she asked. “Everybody’s saying ‘please’ and ‘excuse me.’”

Ed Branthaver - a bearded 70-year-old wearing a multicolored harlequin costume - stood nearby handing out free flowers to passers-by. He responded with a beatific smile. “That’s the spirit of the Grateful Dead!” Mr. Branthaver chirped.

Time to roll over again, Beethoven.

In the 1950s came the outbreak of rock ‘n’ roll. Now, half a century later, that virus has mutated and infiltrated the temple of classical music; witness this sell-out crowd for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s world-premier performance of “Dead Symphony No. 6”.

Nothing screams mainstream acceptance louder than a lush, guitar-free tribute to the songbook of Jerry Garcia and all those lesser-known members of the Grateful Dead, unofficial house band of hippiedom.

Befitting the Dead’s peace-love-and-social-revolution roots, that befuddled middle-aged woman managed to sneak into the concert. The other 2,399 listeners, ranging from grizzled Woodstock veterans to their grandchildren, paid full freight.

For about 25 percent of ticket buyers, this marked a first-time visit to Symphony Hall. That’s not a coincidence. According to BSO Vice President and General Manager Kendra Whitlock Ingram, Music Director Marin Alsop “is open to all different kinds of program ideas.” In fact, she notes, Miss Alsop herself conducted February’s concert featuring tap-dancing whiz Savion Glover.

Miss Alsop, however, turned over her baton to a guest conductor for the recent “Video Game Symphony,” which drew upon such staples of the Nintendo cannon as “Sonic the Hedgehog” and “The Legend of Zelda.” Likewise, Lucas Richman would be taking her place at the podium for “Dead Symphony No. 6.”

The move toward diverse, nonclassical programming is simple survival strategy. Symphony orchestras nationwide need to reach beyond traditional symphony-goers to remain financially viable. The Boston Pops most notably pioneered that path decades ago. Today, orchestras regularly partner up with such singers as James Taylor, Elvis Costello and Amy Grant or devote evenings to string-laden renditions of Ella Fitzgerald’s or Billy Joel’s or Led Zeppelin’s greatest hits.

It’s a sign of the aging-baby-boomer times that the Grateful Dead - whose megajams became the quintessential ‘60s tribal experience and usually played under a mushroom-shaped cloud of secondhand marijuana smoke - finally are getting the symphonic treatment.

“Don’t bogart that bassoon” could become the mantra of a generation now more apt to take an acid-reflux trip than pop a tab of LSD. If Jerry Garcia were still alive (the portly guitarist died of a heart attack in 1995) he would be eligible to collect Social Security.

It was an appropriately long, strange trip to the concert stage for “Dead Symphony No. 6.” Composer Lee Johnson, a music professor at LaGrange College in Georgia, got a call 10 years ago from Atlanta record producer Mike Adams, who floated the idea of creating a Dead-inspired symphony.

Mr. Johnson, 46, served in the U.S. Army Band and grew up listening to the decidedly blander sounds of the rock group Kansas. He took the symphonic challenge but readily admits to being no tie-dyed-in-the-wool Deadhead.

“If you look at the counterculture movement, there were many facets - and not all of them to the public good,” Mr. Johnson says. “I have a different makeup.”

Still, once he steeped himself in the Dead phenomenon, he came to admire the band’s “independence, its fierce kind of anti-commercialism.”

The lobby of Meyerhoff Symphony Hall was turned into a temporary flashback museum. Vintage concert posters and gold records graced the walls. The orchestra played in front of a giant projection screen alternately filled with abstract, psychedelic images and scores of candid photos of Mr. Garcia and friends.

The symphony was surprisingly sedate, part a celebration of and part a requiem for those bygone summers of love. John Callanan, 55, came with his wife, Jane. His children had given him tickets as a Father’s Day gift. Mr. Callanan earned his Deadhead stripes. He saw the band live “probably 40 or 50 times,” he said.

He thoroughly enjoyed “Dead Symphony No. 6,” but inevitably the music had, he said, a “constricted” feeling, as if Mr. Garcia were being squeezed into an ill-fitting tuxedo. You can’t score good audience vibes. “At a Dead concert,” Mr. Callanan explained, “you were part of the experience.”

The Callanans might find the energy level cranked up several notches if they come back Dec. 4, when the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will be doing a jazz-and-gospelized version of “Messiah” called “Too Hot to Handel.”

Royalty sat just a few rows away from them at “Dead Symphony No. 6.” Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Garcia - one of Jerry’s three ex-wives - was on her feet clapping for each of four standing ovations given composer Lee Johnson. She described the music as “magically, deliciously, delicate.” At times it brought her to tears.

But Carolyn Garcia is a ‘60s survivor. She knows nostalgia can be a powerful drug. Parts of the “Dead Symphony No. 6” presentation proved too much for her.

“I had to shut my eyes for the photographs,” she said.

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