Dreadlocked dudes with hackey sacks, scalpers and enough one-hitters to win a Cy Young Award surrounded the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall Thursday night as Phish frontman Trey Anastasio joined the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for the East Coast debut of his orchestral piece “Time Turns Elastic.” Orchestra members traded their usual tuxedos for black shirts and slacks, acknowledging a decidedly casual night at the symphony — though they might not have expected to be greeted with a shout of “Bring out Trey!” while they tuned their instruments. Soon enough, the man of the hour sheepishly walked onstage wearing a dark suit, receiving the first of five standing ovations of the night.
During the first set, Anastasio and the BSO played orchestral arrangements of several Phish songs, including “The Divided Sky,” “Brian and Robert” and “Water in the Sky,” which he dedicated to his sister, who died three weeks ago after a long battle with cancer, and her son Jason, who was in the audience. Throughout the show, exuberant fans would howl with glee, and Anastasio would offer a sheepish smile, as if to apologize to his classy collaborators for his goofy buddies. For their part, the Orchestra seemed to be having a ball with the music, playing with vigor and smiling whenever Anastasio went off on one of trademark noodling solos. The set ended with a particularly lush arrangement of “First Tube,” which warranted the second standing ovation of the night — and inspired the first Phishhead the twirl in the aisles.
After intermission — which must have set a record for the most smokers ever at the esteemed Hall — Anastasio and the BSO opened the second set with “Time Turns Elastic,” a 28-minute piece he co-write with Don Hart of Orchestra Nashville, broken into two movements and nine titled sections. Trey stood rigid for long guitar-less sections while the Orchestra played the piece, which was at turns soaring and martial. When Trey did step to the fore, he sang typically abstract lyrics (“In and out of focus/Time turns elastic”), and displayed contained bits of furious fret work. It ended with the night’s third standing-o.
“I gotta catch my breath after that,” Anastasio said — and he should have taken a little longer than he did: He started the next song, “Let Me Lie” in the wrong key, leading BSO conductor Marin Alsop to cut him off. “We all know that this is one of the best orchestras in the world,” Anastasio said, to an enormous cheer from the hometown crowd. “I was just testing them.” They continued with an exuberant, horn-heavy arrangement of “Guyute” and, after Anastasio left and returned to the stage, a lovely take on “If I Could” — which garnered the fifth and final standing ovation of the night. It was a pleasant surprise to hear one of the most boisterous cheers of the night when Anastasio acknowledged the Orchestra. One or two of the Bierkenstocked masses will might return to hear them perform without Trey — but probably not.