By Richard S. Ginell
On Oct. 23, the Los Angeles Philharmonic commemorated the actual date of the 10th anniversary of its futuristic home, Walt Disney Concert Hall, in an unusual way. True to recent form, the orchestra shunned expected rituals and flourishes, reaching back into the past for something it thought would be audacious, outrageous, and would also right some old wrongs. The presentation was billed as the first performance of a reconstructed version of the complete choral/orchestral suites from onetime local resident Frank Zappa’s sprawling, multi-media, multi-definition collection of sketches from 1966-70, 200 Motels.
This would be no ordinary Green Umbrella contemporary music affair, for the atmosphere in Disney Hall was more like that of a rock concert – probably to the Philharmonic’s delight. Prior to the downbeat, the huge orchestra and members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale did the “Wave.” Stoked partisans in the predictably sold-out house shouted, “Zappa!!”
In James Darrah’s rock-opera-like staging, a bemused Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Philharmonic, and a five-piece rock band were placed behind a chain-link fence to suggest a concentration camp, a metaphor for conditions reportedly facing a touring ’60s rock band. To better illustrate the 12th suite (of 13) in the sequence entitled “Penis Dimension,” members of the cast (including Zappa’s youngest daughter, Diva) and the chorus held and waved illuminated phalluses as per the composer’s written instructions.
It was that kind of evening – and no, it was not really sensation-seeking exploitation of prurient material. What makes Zappa’s unique world as a whole so difficult for some to accept is that you have to buy the entire package – the salacious along with the serious; the relentless political, religious, and social satire; the musical references to his heroes in the classical and rock worlds; the cynicism and ultimately encouraging humanism – in order to get the message. It’s all of one piece, one vision, and you can take it or leave it.
Back in 1970, the Philharmonic attempted to play 49 minutes of excerpts from 200 Motels in a basketball arena (UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion). It would be 38 years before they played another Zappa piece – and there was an exuberant mess of a film called 200 Motels (both the concert and the film can be sampled on YouTube). This week’s 100-minute staged concert version was a third way that bore only fleeting resemblances to the others, and I found it more satisfying.
That said, 200 Motels, as it stands in this version, sounds like the work of a still-young composer (late-20s) wading into deep waters, trying like Mahler to embrace all of his vision in one gulp. Zappa (1940-’93) was still in the thrall of his heroes, particularly Edgard Varèse, whose cobbled percussion salvos and masses of thick, surging orchestral dissonance dominate the score and threaten to become redundant. The piece has its dead spots, especially the long playlets in the center where you wish he would just get on with it. And what little storyline there is (a rock group on tour) soon drifts away.
But the shafts of imagination and humor from that constantly working mind keep you in the game. Zappa mocks everything, starting with Hollywood in the deliberately overblown Overture. There are all kinds of quintessential Zappa tics: his disdain for rock journalists (played by high-flying soprano Hila Plitmann), to whom he nevertheless catered, the references to local landmarks, unions, his manager Herbie Cohen, dental floss.
Yet as was often his method, in the finale, “Strictly Genteel,” Zappa holds out hope for improvement in the human condition. Deep down, he was not a nihilist.
And in a poignant touch at the close, there was a video of a shirtless Zappa busy at work, composing with his pencil, which was most likely how he truly wished to be remembered.
The performance and rehearsals were recorded for future release, and the piece will also be performed in London’s Royal Festival Hall by the BBC Concert Orchestra on Oct. 29. (For a complete cast listing and additional progam materials, go here.)
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide.