Music Review: Frank Zappa Green Umbrella concert at Disney Hall


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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.

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