Berkeley Symphony Does Zappa

By Peter Keane

Bay Area Reporter, June 21, 1984

Frank Zappa’s performances in conjunction with the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra last weekend were indeed as billed: a multi-media event. Possibly a little too multi for my taste because the busyness of the pup pets, dancers, and props did not seem to adequately enhance the music being presented. Rather, the stage business (busyness?) detracted from Zappa’s modern orchestral work.

Remember The Mothers of Invention? They were wild, they were freaky, and there wasn’t anything too smarmy or outre they wouldn’t commit to vinyl. The only thing that kept The Mothers from complete self-indulgence was Zappa’s brilliant sense of humor and his “legiti mate” musical credentials. Here was a guy, it is said, who listened to Edgard Varèse as a child. Possibly read Nietschze for laughs, too.

Zappa’s rock music never had much commercial impact, except for the ubiquitous “Valley Girl.” At least the song gave him the bankroll necessary to pursue what seems to be his true love: modern classical composing. Gone forever are the likes of “Calling Any Vegetable,” “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It,” and the legendary “Suzy Creamcheese.” The humor of that music has been put into an orchestral context.

The music performed at Zellerbach last weekend came from a recording made last year titled London Symphony Orchestra, Zappa, Vol. 1.1 highly recommend the album, even to rock fans, because the music is fueled by the same dynamic – he did start out as a rock guitarist, after all. The album has enough scope, beauty, formal structure, and exotic instruments to keep even the most list less neophyte’s attention. I’d love to hear it performed at Davies Hall in a straightforward presentation.

As for the Berkeley presentations, I have many of the same criticisms I expressed for the Laurie Anderson shows – most by distracting and unfocused visuals. In a Stravinsky-like move, each of the four pieces presented – “Bob in Dacron/Sad Jane,” “Mo ’n’ Herb’s Vacation,” the Berkeley premiere of “Sinister Footwear,” and the minimalist audience aerobic participatory piece “Pedro’s Dowry” – were choreographed. The dancing was performed not only by dancers of varying skills, but by puppets. The larger-than-life-size puppets were cleverly manipulated by black-clad, nearly invisible humans behind them. They added a dimension of charming surreality, but I felt they detracted from the music, public relations missives to the contrary. A simple ballet context, with real people, might be better suited to Zappa’s orchestral work despite its overwhelming, and often overweening, satire. The puppets created a slapstick atmosphere, and the metaphors – yes, Virginia, they were there – were not obvious enough to make the point. The contradictions between the music and the Keystone Kops visuals confused me.

The preponderance of sexist images, despite satirical intent, began to wear thin after a while. Even the big purple and pink cocks, and vulvas made to look like Venus flytraps, started to lose their impact. Or was that the point?

The music itself, superlatively conducted by California native Kent Nagano, was eloquent, engaging, and yes, modern. The Berkeley Symphony acquitted itself admirably, with the addition of a stellar percussion section that included xylophones, Chinese gongs, four tympanis, electronic drums, and ersatz wind machines. The orchestration seemed heavy on brass, with only a smattering of strings and woodwinds. I heard echoes of Bartok and Stravinsky – Zappa’s much-beloved Varèse influences were minimal, if present at all.

The future of Zappa’s orchestral maneuvers looks good. On January 9 no less a luminary than Pierre Boulez conducted the world premiere of three of Zappa’s chamber pieces in London. These recordings, along with the most recent examples of Zappa’s computer music, will be released later this year on EMI Records.

Truly an enjoyable HIGH ART event this was, but Zappa still doesn’t take himself too seriously. When was the last time you saw a symphonic composer introduce his work on stage wearing blue jeans and orange high tops?