LaGrange musicians to perform Grateful Dead Symphony

For someone who had never heard the music of the Grateful Dead, much less gone to a concert, Lee Johnson took on a big project.

Johnson, 49, the Fuller E. Callaway professor of music composition, music technology and film music at LaGrange College, was approached in 1995 to write a symphony based on the iconic band’s music.

When he got the call, Johnson was surprised.

“I knew basically nothing about the Grateful Dead except that they were a band,” he said.

He bought everything from CDs to books that he could find about the band. It took him 10 years to finish the symphony. He recorded it in 2006 with the Russian National Orchestra. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra premiered it in 2008 and later, other orchestras began performing it.

Johnson met Jerry Garcia’s widow, Deborah, after the Baltimore Symphony performance.

Former band members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh have heard it and like it very much, Johnson said.

Lesh, a classically trained musician, was supposed to write the symphony, but he never did, Johnson said.

“He (Lesh) wanted to play along with it when the San Francisco Symphony played it,” Johnson said. But he didn’t.

Johnson took the symphony out of circulation last year to “look at the piece one more critical time.”

Local premiere

Now happy with the finished symphony, Johnson is excited to have it performed by the LaGrange Symphony Orchestra Tuesday night.

For orchestra conductor and music director Patricio Cobos, it’s a different kind of musical score.

Cobos told Johnson that he approaches every piece of new music as if it were written by Beethoven or any other classical great.

“I have enjoyed working on it,” Cobos said. “It is a very good piece. It has great sounds. There are stylized rock sounds, Grateful Dead sounds and original sounds.”

Its five movements, Cobos said, are very “entertaining and thought-provoking at the same time. It makes you listen. And a lot of people are looking forward to it.”

Like Johnson, Cobos knew only that the Grateful Dead was a band.

“I am glad to have a second shot at rock music,” he said.

The orchestra members will be wearing tie-dyed T-shirts while playing “Dead Symphony.”

High praise

Dennis McNally was the Grateful Dead’s publicist for more than 20 years, and he was leery when he heard about the symphony project.

“I’ve experienced rock band and symphony collaborations and they’ve been pretty awful,” he said. “It’s just not interesting music” when translated into symphonic sounds.

“It’s tough to ask an orchestra to improvise,” McNally said. “But he (Johnson) got it. He did the improvising as the composer. It’s not a straight take on any one of these songs. Sometimes it’s an extremely outside take. He takes fragments of each song and takes them into his own thing. It works beautifully.

“I’ve seen it twice live. I’ve listened to the CD. And I liked the live version twice as much.”

McNally was first hired to write the biography of the band. After two years of interviews and traveling with the band, the late Jerry Garcia asked him to become the band’s publicist. He did that for 25 years until Garcia’s death in 1995. McNally began writing the book, “A Long Strange Trip: The History of the Grateful Dead,” two years later, and it was published in 2002.

“I miss him every day,” McNally said of Garcia. “He was a wonderful man and the best boss I never had.”

Dead Symphony, No. 6

No, Johnson hasn’t written six Grateful Dead symphonies. “Dead Symphony” is simply the sixth symphony he’s written. He hopes it appeals to symphony lovers and Grateful Dead fans.

“We hope to get new people into the orchestra hall,” Johnson said. “It’s good strategy if that’s all it takes. But I’m not that clever. This is American culture. It’s deeply fascinating. It’s what we are and who we are. It’s honest and genuine music.”