Thursday, 24 October 2013

Letter From L.A.: The Philharmonic Checks In, 200 Motels

Frank Zappa
Frank Zappa
Who would imagine that they would freak out at the Walt Disney Concert Hall? But that’s exactly what Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and an intrepid band of artists and rockers are about to do as they perform the world premiere of Frank Zappa’s 200 Motelsin its painstakingly reconstructed orchestral urtext.

According to Gail Zappa, who was married to the iconoclastic musician from 1967 until his death in 1993, Wednesday’s performance as part of the Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella series represents the culmination of more than a decade of research and reconstruction.
The production will also feature the type of multimedia/orchestral circus Zappa envisioned but was never able to successfully bring to the stage for reasons both technical and economic.
As director James Darrah explains, “Frank Zappa was always experimenting with visual elements like video, and now we have the capability to create the work using technology that did not exist in 1971.ˮ
“This is not a suite or a condensed version,” Darrah emphasizes. “This is the complete 200 Motels orchestral score exactly the way Frank wrote it. Only 40 percent of the orchestral score was included in the 1971 movie. The rest was video segments and songs featuring the Mothers of Invention. That’s why this really is a world premiere. And there is a rock band as well that includes Joe Travers (drums) and Ian Underwood (keyboards and saxophone) who both played with the Mothers.”‟Frank Zappa was always experimenting with visual elements like video, and now we have the capability to create the work using technology that did not exist in 1971.ˮ - Director James Darrah
The choice to include 200 Motels as part of the 10th anniversary of Disney Hall is certainly appropriate since the roots that link Frank Zappa to the L.A. Philharmonic run deep.
It was in May of 1970 that Zubin Mehta led a performance of Concerto for Mothers and Orchestra at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion that featured the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. Zappa, who was fascinated by the potential of having his music performed by a full symphony orchestra, then incorporated music from the Concerto into his surrealistic band-on-the-road film, 200 Motels, which premiered the following year and was released as a soundtrack double album featuring the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, narrator Theodore Bikel, and the Mothers. Zappa’s concept for a fully orchestrated version of 200 Motels, however, fell by the wayside and it would take many years before a series of events began to stir the waters.
So the story goes, when Esa-Pekka Salonen began his long and productive association with Los Angeles Philharmonic, he sought out Frank Zappa, primarily with the idea of organizing a concert tour to his native Finland where, he told Zappa, he and the Mothers had a substantial following. As Gail Zappa recalls, Frank would have loved to accept the offer but was forced to decline because (it had not been made public) he was slowly dying from prostate cancer.
Gail and Frank Zappa
Gail and Frank Zappa
It was in 1998, Gail remembers, that the process of resurrecting the fully orchestrated version of 200 Motelsreally began.

“I was approached by the Holland Festival. They asked if they could do 200 Motels; I told them that I didn’t have a score or the parts. I also told them it would probably be prohibitively expensive to put it all together. But they were determined.”
Like a trio of musical archeologists, Gail Zappa, “vaultmeister” Joe Travers, and Frank Zappa’s synclavier programmer, Todd Yvega, began to put the pieces of what they had together.
“We met in my basement,” says Gail, “and lined up all the scores and parts that we had. The problem was we’d never gotten all the material back after the 1971 London recording. I made an executive decision as executor of my husband’s estate. ‘Let’s put everything together,’ I said, ‘and see what we’ve got that’s as close as possible to what the original might have been.’ I also decided to only keep the rock ‘n’ roll parts where the band interacted directly with the orchestra. Then we followed the Yellow Brick Road of the measure numbers.”

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