« Previous | Culture Monster Home | Next »

Music Review: Frank Zappa Green Umbrella concert at Disney Hall

December 2, 2009 |  1:43 pm

Zappa Clearly, the West Coast, Left Coast festival would have been remiss without nodding to Frank Zappa, one of Los Angeles' greatest and least easily categorized musical mavericks, whose work was the star of Tuesday’s Green Umbrella concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Then again, the irreverent, witty and determinedly complex classical side of Zappa -- who died of cancer in 1993 -- has been strangely missing in action and grossly under-appreciated in this city.

Zappa has history with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, going back to 1970’s Zubin Mehta-conducted program of music from his movie “200 Motels,” performed with Zappa and his band the Mothers of Invention.

But Zappa found more love and willing musical champions across the Atlantic. That group bravely realized Zappa’s “Yellow Shark” project, a recording of which was the last one released in Zappa’s lifetime, and selections from which were performed Tuesday. (Ensemble Modern planned to play Zappa on its scheduled-but-canceled L.A. visit years ago, and will do so when appearing at the next Ojai Music Festival).

A sense of overdue attention settled into Disney Hall as conductor -- and curator of the festival -- John Adams led the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group through such tricky-but-vibrant ensemble arrangements as fragments from the early Zappa album “Uncle Meat,” and “G-Spot Tornado” to close the evening.

Zappa also whipped up scores of Pierre Boulez-like icy intricacy, as in the sinuous “The Girl in the Magnesium Dress,” the taut string quintet piece “Questi Cazzi di Piccione,” and the stunning piano four-hands piece “Ruth Is Sleeping,” which were expertly played Tuesday by Vicki Ray and Joanne Pearce Martin.

Adams For an encore, Adams repeated “G-Spot Tornado,” bumped up a notch, tempo-wise and ecstasy-wise. It all ended too soon. Zappa’s music could easily fill a substantial evening.

Before intermission, the program turned to other “old” new music business from the West Coast axis. Ingram Marshall, though now an East Coaster, wrote his mistily mesmerizing brass piece “Fog Tropes” while in San Francisco, at the behest of Adams. The conductor-composer readily grasps its dualities of atmosphere and substance, and his conducting  links it to Wagner and Adams’ own ethereal bass piece “Harmonielehre.”

Harry Partch, the self-invented legend — not to mention instrument and scale inventor — was granted a spotlight in the program via “U.S. Highball: A Musical Account of Slim’s Transcontinental Hobo Trip.” The Kronos Quartet, with vocalist David Barron, played Ben Johnston's 1998 arrangement, mixing western intonation and Partch’s microtonal math. This necessarily rambling piece is an oddball admix of Bohemian airs, American road yarn and experimental verve.

But the real centerpiece of this evening was Zappa, granted a long-overdue appreciation as a should-be hometown hero. His music, sharply etched here, soared and scampered, according to design, in this more than proper concert hall.

 -- Josef Woodard

Top: File photo of Frank Zappa in 1973. Credit: Los Angeles Times. Below: John Adams. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

*Updated: an early version of this story incorrectly said that Pierre Boulez conducted the Ensemble Modern.


John Adams is feeling festive

Comments () | Archives (9)

Great Green Umbrella event to witness; an eclectic program of music, which reached out to a large subset of contemporary music fans.

Agreed with Mr. Woodward that the Zappa excerpts from "Yellow Shark" were the highlight of the evening.

Glad that Frank Zappa's music, popular for a number of years in Europe is getting attention here on the "Left Coast". The improvisational riffs and diverse arrangements by Zappa are quite impressive; comparable to more established contemporary compositions such as Edgar Varese and Pierre Boulez for their advante garde classical jazz references.

Also enjoyed Ingram Marshall's "Fog Tropes" in its brass arrangement.

Excellent artistic contributions by the LAPO NMG pianists, woodwinds and brass sections.

Harry Partch's "U.S. Highball" spoke less to me musically, but was well performed by the Kronos Quartet.

Another example of the high quality contemporary music that is performed under the "Green Umbrellas".

Kudos to John Adams for his programming and direction of the evening's concert. Some great accessible contemporary music programmed and enjoyed here at Disney Hall.

Bravo, John Adams. Bravo, Josef Woodard. Bravo, Frank Zappa. May this concert be a harbinger of Zappa things to come.

@ Fullerton- No love for the percussionists?

I think that may be a bit extreme to say that Zappa's classical music has been strangly missing in action. Please note that just last year "Dupree's Paradise" was performed by the LA Philharmonic as part of the Concrete Frequencies festival with David Robertson. And Robertson was able to get a much better performance out of the musicians than John Adams. Except for the big-name composers it is rather tough to get performed by a major US orchestra two years in a row.
It should also be noted that although Kronos and Mr. Barron did a great job with the Ben Johnston arrangement of the Harry Partch piece, that arrangement is no substitute for Partch's original score as performed on Partch's instruments with multiple vocalists. Much is lost when Partch's ensemble is reduced to string quartet and one singer. I think Adams did Partch a disservice by not programming the original piece (anyone who was at the concert and has not heard the original should listen to the New World Records CD of it to see the difference) especially since the ensemble named Partch is often seen performing at REDCAT on a regular basis.

Frank Zappa is one of the most egregious examples of the emperor's new clothes phenomenon in music, ever. He just was not meaningful, not important, not very good. Somehow he got a little notoriety, and no one among the self-styled hipoisie had the guts to be the first to say, "Zappa blows."

Tom Waits is another.

I never claimed to be hip, so I'll go first: Zappa and Waits blow.

Let Me be the first to say that Lou Bricano blows.

Gotta go with Lou. All the great musician/writers of the mid and late 20th century in America and you got Zappa? PLEASE!!!more fun and games with intellectual pretenses. Even just during his reign of silliness you had Miles, Coltrane, Dolphy, Monk, Shorter, and even the Bleys as the Zappas of jazz. Jaco Pastorius did a hundred times more relevant, electronic, "exotic"(to academic types) and intense music than Zappa in his short and unstable life. Sondheim and Joni Mitchell even are light years better, in the tradition of American song writers.

Imperial Clothing it is, click me below and enjoy, it is just as true in American "Music"(pale shades of rhythmless "intellectual" meanderings) as our horrible visual art. Which we are not nearly as good at as in passionate, natural, intelligent(vs intellectual hollowness)true art music. The equal of Matisse and Picasso were Miles and Coltrane, not Cage and Zappa who were more "clever" sterile musics of Duchamp and the spoiled Switzerland draft dodging, never saw war yet whined about it, Dadaists.

Have a nice day!

art e musica collegia delenda est

It is absolutely heartening that Frank Zappa's 'serious' music('serious' being a very relative thing with Frank) is being kept alive. He has a dual claim on both rock posterity and classical music posterity. I do wish, however, that someone would play the original one piano version of "Ruth Is Sleeping." The original one piano version was deemed (by whom?) to be be impossible to play. The word 'impossible' to me always poses a challenge. The late Glenn Gould could read a score and play it by memory without practice. The Zappa estate ought to show the original version of "Ruth Is Sleeping" to someone like Marc-Andre Hamelin. Hamelin delights in tackling the so-called impossible, navigating the complexities of Alkan and the notorious Von Henselt piano concerto. I hope the original version of "Ruth Is Sleeping" is still in manuscript. It's nice to see that Zappa can be played on the same bill as other serious composers without embarrassment. Greg Cameron, Surrey, B.C., Canada

Frank Zappa is one of the most egregious examples of the emperor's new clothes phenomenon in music, ever. He just was not meaningful, not important, not very good. Somehow he got a little notoriety, and no one among the self-styled hipoisie had the guts to be the first to say, "Zappa blows."

Tom Waits is another


Recommended on Facebook

In Case You Missed It...


Explore the arts: See our interactive venue graphics


Tweets and retweets from L.A. Times staff writers.