Rockers from Eric Clapton to Metallica may have beaten Trey Anastasio to the classical world, but the Phish guitarist displayed more homespun class in his orchestral debut Friday, appearing with the Vermont Youth Orchestra at the 1,300-seat Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, just outside Albany.
The evenings finale was a VYO premiere of an orchestrated version of “Guyute,” seamlessly merged with the opening of another Phish favorite, “My Friend, My Friend.” Although the two songs appear on different Phish albums, Anastasio had written them together during a 1992 trip to County Cork, Ireland. So it was a reunion of compositions “separated at birth,” said VYO music director/conductor Troy Peters, who orchestrated the work with Anastasio. From its bouncy string swells to a lightly percussive fugue which accelerated with fright-toned horns, the VYO’s rendition clearly thrilled the red-headed composer, who watched from his mother’s opera box, sporting a huge grin and gesturing to each crescendo.
However, Anastasio also took the opportunity to perform with the orchestra, while revisiting his own jazz and classical training with Vermont composer/mentor Ernie Stires. The roundly cheered guitarist — wearing a dark suit, with his hair neatly trimmed first sat in front of the eighty-five-piece group of high-schoolers with a new model of his hollow-bodied electric, rested his left foot on a DAT tape box, and fingered the King Crimson-esque filigrees of Stires’ “Chat Rooms,” commissioned as a vehicle for Anastasio and the VYO.
One could also visualize the guitarist practicing jazz standards during his college days in Burlington when he later chorded Stires’ jump tune “Samson Riff” with the composer on piano, accompanied by students on bass and drums. The brass section then performed Anastasio’s adaptation of the same piece (titled “At the Barbecue” on his 1998 solo disc One Mans Trash), followed by Peters joint orchestration for the VYO.
The orchestra, composed of students from grades nine through twelve, performed admirably, with its members appearing as excited (and a tad awkward at first) as Anastasio himself. The program included VYO selections by Samuel Barber, Richard Strauss and Anastasio favorite Maurice Ravel — “so you can hear the music in the orchestral world that speaks so powerfully to Trey,” conductor Peters informed out-of-water Phish fans.
After the world premiere of “Guyute,” Anastasio sheepishly returned to the stage to accept a hearty ovation and give the orchestra a thumbs-up. Then he donned an acoustic guitar for an encore of “The Inlaw Josie Wales,” encircled by principle members of the string section for chamber backup. It was a better setting for that soft, harmonics-spiced instrumental than Anastasio’s solo renditions at Phishs arena-rock shows or 1999 New Years bash in the Everglades.
Anastasio, Stires and the VYO repeated the program in a Sunday matinee at the Flynn Theatre in Burlington, Vermont. The guitarist, who begins a ten-date East Coast tour with his solo band on February 21st, is wasting no time in exploring various facets of his musical personality while Phish is on hiatus.