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Frank Zappa's terrific 'mess': L.A. Phil's live recording of '200 Motels' out Nov. 20

Frank Zappa's terrific 'mess': L.A. Phil's live recording of '200 Motels' out Nov. 20
Hila Plitmann, playing the Soprano Solo, gestures toward conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen during the Los Angeles Philharmonic's 2013 concert of Frank Zappa's "200 Motels: The Suites." A recording of the performance will be released Nov. 20. (Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times)

A recording of one of the most unorthodox performances in the Los Angeles Philharmonic's history — a 2013 rendition of the orchestral suites from Frank Zappa's "200 Motels" — will be released Nov. 20.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the concert, "200 Motels: The Suites," to celebrate Walt Disney Concert Hall's 10th birthday. It will be available as a two-CD set or as downloads from the Zappa Records/UMe label.

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"200 Motels: The Suites" is the 101st album of the late Zappa's career, according to his son Ahmet. It's also the last prepared by Gail Zappa, the composer's widow, who died Oct. 7 at age 70.

The "200 Motels" concert was a big undertaking, marshaling a 166-member ensemble that included a 115-piece orchestra, 13 singer-actors and a 32-member chorus from the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

No professional video was made of the highly visual event, which included staged elements in which Los Angeles director James Darrah evoked satirical scenes and characters from the feature film "200 Motels," which Zappa released in 1971.

The CD will include photographs documenting the 2013 performance, essays by Gail Zappa and her co-producer, Frank Filipetti, and reminiscences by Darrah and some of the performers, including Michael Des Barres and Zappa's daughter Diva, who was one of the singer-actors.

The concert featured a rock rhythm section in some passages, but it was not an attempt to replicate the chaotic film and soundtrack album, "200 Motels," which featured the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Zappa's band, the Mothers of Invention, with Ringo Starr, Keith Moon and Theodore Bikel popping up on screen.

The film's concept was that the Mothers had gotten stuck on tour in a Middle American town and were acting out in ways illustrative of the core theme that "touring can make you crazy." The title was Zappa's estimate of the number of lodgings he and his band had occupied during tours from 1966 to 1970. Zappa, who died in 1993, regularly wrote contemporary classical pieces alongside the idiosyncratic rock songs with which he first made his name in the 1960s.

For the Disney Hall concert, Gail Zappa and assistants went through her husband's sometimes scattered sheet music for the orchestral portions of "200 Motels" and tried to reassemble it in the order he'd intended.

Salonen said before the 2013 concert that he "was very attracted by this anarchic, irreverent spirit" of Zappa. "It goes between the trashiest of sentiments to real interesting and really profound thoughts and everything in between." Salonen was the Phil's music director when Disney Hall opened in 2003 and returned to preside over a series of anniversary concerts in 2013. "The one thing that's completely missing from the piece is reverence," he said.

Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed's review of the "200 Motels" concert described the suites as basically "a mess of material by a young composer with little orchestra experience," but he said they offered "some terrific moments" in which "Salonen had a laser-like focus on what was interesting and the L.A. Phil nailed the score spectacularly."

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