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Pearl Jam's Mike McCready Goes To The Symphony

Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready with Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot.
Courtesy Seattle Symphony Orchestra
Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready with Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot.

Mike McCready, the lead guitarist for Pearl Jam, gave his first performance for the Seattle Symphony when he was just a kid.

"I was 12 years old," he says laughing, "and my band Warrior played a Symphony fund-a-thon underneath the Monorail."

Now McCready gets a chance to make music with the orchestra.

McCready makes his Seattle Symphony debut Jan. 30th, the featured artist in this year's edition of the Symphony's Sonic Evolutions series.

Every year, Sonic Evolutions pairs a well known Seattle area musician with the 80-member orchestra. Last year local hip hop icon Sir Mix-a-Lot's version of "Baby Got Back" enticed a bevy of women up onto the McCaw Hall stage to shake their booties alongside the rapper and the orchestra. A video of that performance was Seattle Symphony Orchestra's first viral hit.

This year Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot invited Mike McCready to compose something he could perform with the full orchestra backing him up.

When Morlot invites musicians to collaborate, he isn't looking for an orchestrated version of a rock song.

"It's that they capture the culture of that band, the sound of that band, possibly even the political message that this band wants to translate," Morlot says.

This was a tall order for McCready. He has composed film scores before, but he had never tackled anything as big as an orchestral composition.

"I started it with a demo of some music in my basement with my drummer in Pearl Jam, Matt Cameron," McCready says.  The two arranged some songs for guitar, bass, drums and vocal harmony.

McCready then shared that recording with Morlot. His job was to take the short, catchy music and help expand it into an orchestral work.

"The goal for me was to kind of find a way where we can steal some of Mike's ideas and translate that into more of a longer journey," Morlot says.

The final composition, "Waking the Horizon," was arranged by Scott Teske for the full orchestra. McCready and Cameron will join them onstage to perform it, which will culminate the first half of the Sonic Evolutions bill.

After an intermission, McCready and drummer Barrett Martin will be back onstage to recreate their 1990s group Mad Season. Original band members Layne Staley and John Baker Saunders have passed away, so Chris Cornell of Soundgarden and Duff McKagan of Guns N' Roses will join McCready and Martin for this one-time performance.

The Sonic Evolutions series is another tool in Seattle Symphony Orchestra's ongoing project to bring a more diverse audience into Benaroya Hall. Morlot says with Sonic Evolutions, he's trying to recreate the way people presented concerts two or three centuries ago.

"Most of the music people would hear on occasions like this was new music," Morlot stresses. "I was trying to think, how can we go back to that to present new music to audiences that have less experience with going out and hearing the symphony orchestra."

Morlot says Seattle Symphony Orchestra doesn't have any hard data to show that the Sonic Evolutions audiences have purchased tickets to other concerts. But he's convinced the first step is for people of all backgrounds to have a positive experience at Benaroya Hall.

"I'm hoping by doing this, we create a memory that will make them comfortable going back to the Symphony 20 years from now."

The audience for this year's version of Sonic Evolutions seems primed for a good time. The show sold out within days after the Symphony announced that McCready and Mad Season were the featured performers. Mike McCready says he doesn't expect women to jump up onstage to dance this year, the way Sir Mix-a-Lot's fans did. But he's been working hard with both Mad Season and the symphony musicians to prepare for the one-night performance.

At the very least, they'll make a sound that shakes the elegant hall up to its rafters.