When an orchestra celebrates a milestone, it premieres a new composition. To commemorate the 10th anniversary of the L.A. Philharmonic's home, Walt Disney Concert Hall, works were commissioned from big-shot composers such as Magnus Lindberg, Peter Lieberson, and Brett Dean. But another world premiere there this month is stealing attention from these classical music luminaries — the first full performance of Frank Zappa's musical dramatic work, 200 Motels, this Wednesday, Oct. 23.
Zappa may strike some as an odd person to invite to the party, but for years he was a significant local presence. When conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen (who will conduct Wednesday's performance) arrived here in 1991, the maverick composer was one of the first L.A. musicians to reach out to him.
More directly, in 1970 the L.A. Philharmonic and its conductor, Zubin Mehta, joined forces with Zappa and a reboot of the Mothers of Invention to premiere a chunk of 200 Motels alongside compositions by the dean of CalArts, Mel Powell, and by Zappa's hero, Varese. Powell — more widely known at the time as the former pianist and arranger of Benny Goodman's Swing Era band — was so outraged by Zappa and his band that he stormed out of the venue with the tape part to his own Immobiles 1-4, preventing its premiere.
Powell, who had renounced writing jazz in favor of genteel atonal concert music, later described “his revulsion at the wretched debasement of new music.” Powell didn't get Zappa's satirical deflation of Jim Morrison's Oedipal pretension “The End.” When Zappa's band interpolated excerpts from Stravinsky's Agon or Varese's Integrales, Powell heard a “mockery of art.” Zappa intended these as friendly tributes to his two compositional idols. (When a fan whistled during the Integrales quote, Zappa sternly admonished, “Shut up, you idiot!”)
If Powell (and most critics present) couldn't pick up on those jokes and homages, how could he possibly appreciate 200 Motels' satirical depictions of a rock band's life on the road and Zappa's scathing portrayal of Small Town, U.S.A.?
200 Motels treated prejudice and sexual yearning with graphic and accurate language; publicity for the concert warns of “mature subject matter; we're not kidding.” Back then, critics dismissed Zappa's texts as puerile smut. Similar charges were leveled against transgressive writers such as Jean Genet, William Burroughs and Terry Southern, but critics extolled their merits. When self-taught composer and librettist Zappa used the same literary techniques, no one came to his defense.
Today, scholars such as Ben Watson and Kelly Fisher Lowe defend Zappa's subject material, language, and idiosyncratic music. Two generations of composers have come under his influence as well, including Matt Marks. Marks will act and sing the role played by Mark Volman in the film and soundtrack versions of 200 Motels.
200 Motels and, especially, Joe's Garage — Zappa's most acclaimed musicodramatic work — piqued Marks' interest in opera and music theater. “For a sarcastic stoner kid like me growing up in Downey, Sondheim wasn't going to pierce that cynical veneer,” Marks says in an email. “Zappa … was something I could share with my friends … [and] got me interested in satire.” That “twisted humor and irony” can be heard in Marks' first album, The Little Death, which he describes as a “post-Christian nihilist pop-opera.”
Marks' mini-opera, Strip Mall, was commissioned and premiered on the L.A. Phil's Green Umbrella series last year. It “definitely owes a lot to 200 Motels,” Marks says. “The nameless bland suburban town in Strip Mall is very similar to Zappa's bleak suburban hellhole, Centerville.”
For the 1970 premiere of 200 Motels, Zubin Mehta cut the substantial second movement due to rehearsal time constraints. Various sources document that movement involves a vacuum cleaner, the chorus blowing bubbles through straws, and an operatic soprano singing, “Munchkins get me hot.” A bootleg recording of the premiere, the film 200 Motels, and the “soundtrack” recording (which features music not heard in the film) all contain different parts of Zappa's original score, but each one has significant omissions. What audiences will see and hear on Wednesday is the first complete performance of 200 Motels as Zappa originally intended.
The L.A. Philharmonic's vice president of artistic planning, Chad Smith, worked closely with Gail Zappa (Frank's widow), to bring this project to Disney Hall. Although it involved some reconstruction, Smith says that “every note that Frank wrote is there.” The score, which will be published by classical music firm Schotts, is filled with detailed stage instructions. It involves 12 soloists (one of whom is Zappa's daughter, Diva), a videographer, a narrator, and a seven-piece rock band. Band members include multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood (a Mother of Invention who performed at the premiere), as well as Zappa specialists Joe Travers on drums, Scott Carter Thunes on bass, and guitarist Jamie Kime.
It usually takes decades for the classical music world to accept the work of composers like Scott Joplin or George Gershwin who cross over from popular music. Wednesday's one-night-only performance could be a significant turning point in the reappraisal of Frank Zappa's concert music.
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