TROY, New York — It should have been clear, when Phish singer/guitarist Trey Anastasio's name didn't appear on the tickets, that his "American Masters" performance Friday with the Vermont Youth Orchestra was not to be about him, or any other individual.
As VYO music director Troy Peters phrased it in his brief welcoming statement, the show, which took place at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, was to be "about relationships" — such as the one between students and teachers (Anastasio and his mentor, Ernie Stires, in particular) and those between classical and popular music and musicians and their audience in general.
On a Greyhound bus ride from New York to Troy, a couple of clean-cut guys in their early 20s had been biding their time talking about "The Kids in the Hall," Robin Williams, Bill Clinton, "Star Trek" and Tchaikovsky.
But without fail, the conversation always came back to Trey.
Would his hair be short? (Yes.) Would he reunite with Phish to play Big Cypress this New Year's Eve? (Probably not.) "Was it you that was telling me about Carnegie Hall?" one asked, referring to Anastasio's appearance last February at the annual Tibet House Benefit (hosted by pianist/composer Philip Glass).
"Yeah," the other replied. "When the monks were onstage, these guys started yelling, 'Trey! Trey!' It was terrible. It'd suck if that happened here."
Unlike the crowd at the Tibet House show, the audience for this event were almost entirely Phish heads, with only a smattering of proud parents, including Anastasio's own father, in attendance. The question remained to be answered: Could Phish heads behave themselves?
Fans were still milling about the small theater as the approximately 80 high-school musicians, all formally dressed, took their seats and began tuning their instruments. The stage, enhanced to support the large ensemble, was arranged with two sections of violins to the left and one to the right, next to a section of cellos. Horns and percussion were in back rows, behind a dominating grand piano.
"We get a lot more pumped [for a special show like this]," 17-year-old violinist and five-year VYO veteran Aaron Davis said before the show began. "It's a totally different feeling, playing with someone of such a high stature," the Plattsburgh (New York) High School senior continued. "You get to give people who don't normally listen to classical music a chance to experience all different types of music in one setting."
At the conductor's podium, Peters introduced the opening piece, noting that composer Samuel Barber (whose "Adagio" was used as the theme from "Platoon") had been the cousin of Stires' mother. He then launched the group into "First Essay for Orchestra, Opus 12." The second piece, Richard Strauss' "Horn Concerto No. 1 in E flat major, Opus 11," featuring Burlington (Vermont) High School senior Jocelyn Crawford on the French horn, was both a subtle reference to Phish's tendency to play the composer's "Also Sprach Zarathustra" and a continuation of the relationships theme. As Peters' program notes explain, Strauss wrote the concerto as a tribute to his father, Franz Strauss.
Finally, it was time for the fold-out chair and the portable Fender amp to the left of the conductor's platform to be used: Phish tour manager Brad Sands soon appeared with sheet music in hand, and within seconds, Anastasio walked onstage to the stomping of the orchestra members and the rowdy applause of the audience — who proved to be a lot more polite than the Tibet House crowd: No one screamed out "Trey!" once.
As the program notes explained, the third number, "Chat Rooms," was composed by Stires "on commission ... as a virtuoso vehicle for his best known student." The tune proved a challenge for Anastasio, as the naturally improvisational performer could be seen counting off the notes, attentive to the music sheets in front of him. When the music came to an abrupt break after one particularly intense portion, he was genuinely taken aback, mouthing "Wow!," then positioning himself for the third and last movement of the piece.
The fourth song also featured three parts, but it perhaps best represented the collaborative nature of the evening's selections. Stires, who wrote "Samson Riffs" more than 20 years ago, joined the orchestra on piano for the evening's musical climax. The suite began with an emotion-filled duet between mentor and student, accompanied only by a swing drumbeat. Then floating into a brass-heavy version of Anastasio's "Samson Variation," the piece closed with "Samson Counterpart," a finale penned by Peters that overlapped the two other parts. Anastasio then left the stage to join his family and watch the end of the show.
After a brief composition by Maurice Ravel, one of the Phish frontman's major influences, Peters introduced the final piece, which would be for many the highlight of the concert. "Honestly, I was never a fan of the song 'Guyute,' " 24-year-old front-row fanatic Brooke Carlson of Phoenix said. "But this performance gave a whole new feeling and meaning to the song. It will never be the same."
This orchestral arrangement combined two popular Phish tunes, "My Friend, My Friend," from 1993's Rift, and "Guyute", from 1998's Story of the Ghost, described by Peters as "separated at birth twins." From beginning to end, fans turned to one another, eyes wide, jaws down, nodding in approval. To catch a glimpse of Anastasio, particularly during the song's powerful peak, was to see a man absolutely rocking out.
Returning to the stage for a surprise encore, Anastasio moved his chair to the now-empty conductors' block, as the four front musicians (three on violin and one on cello) pulled in closer to him for the acoustic instrumental "Inlaw Josie Wales," from last year's Farmhouse.
While fans filed out of the venue, and a crowd gathered by the musicians' entrance, a group of teens from Latham, New York, offered their opinion of the show. "I think they should have let Trey play longer. Play some of the [Phish] songs," one said. "Let him sing," said another. "It would have been nice with Fishman, Page and Mike backing him up." And the rest of the crew nodded in agreement.
But 17-year-old Matt "L.T." Fleming of Greenville, South Carolina, had a different opinion. "I was glad Trey didn't play longer," he said. "He was in a background role, and he was embracing it. He was looking at the conductor and looking at the kids the same way they were looking at him. It was mutual respect all night long." Twenty-year-old Ryan Cox, also of Greenville, added, "I was also impressed with the crowd's respect for the orchestra."
"You could see how proud Trey was," 25-year old Brian Scannelli of Denville, New Jersey, said, adding, "It's a sign of things to come."