When Phish’s Trey Anastasio took the stage at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles on Saturday night, he faced a crowd that was significantly better dressed – and behaved – than the typical Phish crowd. That's because Anastasio was performing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Scott Dunn (Associate Conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra). While the performance was a one-time-only affair, Anastasio is no stranger to playing with orchestras, having experimented with classical music since 2000. Most recently, he performed with three other philharmonic orchestras – in Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Denver – earlier this year.
As with those nights, Saturday's program called upon nuggets from Phish's vast catalog, as well as a selection from Anastasio's solo works, all rearranged symphonically by his longtime classical arranger, Don Hart. Hart's other clients include Martina McBride, Collective Soul and Lyle Lovett, but none of that work is remotely similar to his dynamic collaborations with Anastasio, which can swing from hushed balladry to John Williams–style tours de force, sometimes within the same piece.
Before a single note was plucked, the crowd at the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall gave the house musicians perhaps their most rousing reception yet, bestowing them with a standing ovation before Anastasio even appeared onstage. And they frequently rose to their feet between the compositions – no doubt, unusual behavior for a night at the symphony.
But it's important to note that this wasn't just a case of a rock star who wanted a string section to augment his slow songs or horns to punctuate his anthems. The rearrangements actually transformed popular Phish standards like "First Tube" and "Water in the Sky" into entirely new entities, which leaned far more towards "new classical" territory than the jazz and rock tendencies they usually exhibit.
In "Divided Sky," violins covered for Phish keyboardist Page McConnell, while bass notes were handled by the cellos. But the orchestra didn't merely replace or replicate Anastasio's three Phish bandmates; the symphonic parts were frequently exclusive to these new arrangements, including some lively interplay between Anastasio and the first chair.
Anastasio's singing voice, which cut through the concert hall, never sounded so strong – or, for that matter, so sincere – as it did during such numbers as the now-rare Phish ballad "Brian and Robert." And he nailed his difficult guitar solos in "Guyute" with greater accuracy than he's been able to achieve for years during Phish's renditions of the complex composition.
"It's impossible to describe what an honor it is to be playing on this stage," Anastasio told the audience, in obvious awe of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. "This is the greatest sounding room I've ever been in."
But as much as the evening differed from a night out with Phish, the discrepancy between the two was sometimes almost comical. Fans clapped on cue during a percussive part of "Stash" and erupted in cheers during a particularly victorious climax in the middle of "You Enjoy Myself."
The oft-misunderstood "Time Turns Elastic" – which has received a less-than-enthusiastic response during Phish sets – made a lot more sense in this format, performed the way it was initially envisioned: as a majestic, sweeping epic with distinct movements, hair-raising flourishes and even symphonic bombast.
The symphonic rendition of "If I Could" that Anastasio performed with the Philharmonic transformed the ballad into a new panoramic soundscape so much grander than the sound that is produced when a four-piece rock band attempts it – even one as versatile as Phish.
Anastasio has always maintained that he's just as influenced by Igor Stravinsky as he is by Carlos Santana, and on Saturday he proved that his forays into classical music are just as innovative and exciting as his groundbreaking work in a rock band. Of course, nobody would recommend that he quit his day job in Phish, but if that doesn't work out for him, he's sure got a great plan B. In the meantime, these rare nights when he links up with a local philharmonic are genuine treats not to be missed.