The RNO recording is currently available online at outlets such as iTunes, eMusic and Napster; the CD release is scheduled for May 29. According to Reuters, plans are afoot for a U.S. orchestra to premiere the work in concert as well.
Johnson weaves themes from some of the band's familiar songs, such as "St. Stephen," as well as less frequently performed songs like "Blues for Allah," into his 12-movement orchestral work. There is also an improvised section. The symphony's overture and finale include echoes of "Funiculi Funicula," the old Italian song that the Dead sometimes used as a tune-up riff.
When the piece "finds its way into your local concert hall, dancing might be a slight problem but the listening will be sweet," says the website for the work, www.deadsymphony.com. (There was no word about cigarette lighters.)
The Dead Symphony is "a musical embrace of American culture" and a continuation of the band's spirit, Johnson told Reuters. "The Grateful Dead lived in the musical moment. Theirs was a world of perpetual exploration and endless possibility."
The work was the brainchild of Atlanta producer (and Deadhead) Mike Adams. "He thought that what he was hearing was way beyond what a band should be able to do. It could have symphonic possibilities," said Johnson, who was recruited by Adams.
An Emmy-winner composer who has written symphonies, operas, chamber works, stage musicals and film scores, Johnson was unfamiliar with the Grateful Dead's music when Adams approached him.
"I grew up studying 'dead' composers, but the other kinds — the Stravinskys, the Beethovens and all those," he told Reuters, adding that the Russian players liked the symphony. When asked to improvise for the movement "Stella Blue," they were reportedly eager to jam.
According to his website, Johnson has previously conducted and made recordings with the RNO.