Music Review: Zappa at Ojai Music Festival

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Bring an esoteric 30-year-old German ensemble that specializes in extremely complex, sometimes inscrutable, music to perform on the West Coast for the first time. Program the concert with works of a dead white guy with an Italian name. And what do you get? A sea of gray hair, of course.

And so it was Friday night at this year’s Ojai Music Festival. Libbey Bowl welcomed an aging audience. That’s right, a bowl full of seniors who swayed and danced in their seats. Who whooped and hollered and whistled. Who appeared to have a working knowledge of controlled substances and who, under their influence, happily and sloppily wolfed down messy burritos and other junk food during the concert. Who wore “Uncle Meat” and ‘Hot Rats” T-shirts. Who understand “shut up ‘n’ play yer guitar” to be a technical musicological term. Who, in other words, know how to have a good time.


The dead white guy was Frank Zappa, not to be confused with Francesco Zappa, a bland 18th century Italian composer who visited Frankfurt in 1771. The band, Frank Zappa’s last band, better even than the Mothers of Invention, was Frankfurt, Germany’s, Ensemble Modern. This concert was a ridiculously long time in coming. In 1991, Zappa, ill with the prostate cancer that would fell him two years later, summoned the Ensemble Modern, one of Europe’s most admired new music groups, to Los Angeles to work on “The Yellow Shark,” his last major project. It was premiered in 1992 in Frankfurt as a dance piece with the Canadian troupe, La La La Human Steps, and represented the final flowering of a pop musician into a composer of substantial new music meant for the concert hall.

But funding for a West Coast tour of Ensemble Modern a few years later fell through and thus it took nearly 20 years for these players to bring some of “Yellow Shark” to within a hundred miles of the music’s home turf. It also took an exceptionally long time for Zappa to reach Ojai, considering that among his champions have been three former music directors of the festival – Pierre Boulez, Kent Nagano and John Adams.
From the point of view of new concert music, Zappa’s works are very much a mixed bag. As was made clear from an afternoon panel of musicians Ian Underwood and Steve Vai, the Synclavier specialist Todd Yvega and Ensemble Modern flutist Dietmar Weisner, Zappa was a tireless experimenter with sound and form. The excerpts from “Yellow Shark” revealed that in spades. [For the record: An earlier version of this review said Ian Underwood is guitarist. He plays woodwind and keyboards.]

In “The Girl in Magnesium Dress,” Zappa put two pianists through Boulezean paces and then moments later one of those pianists, Hermann Kretzschmar, reappeared on stage in a funky Uncle Sam outfit for “Welcome to the United States,” berating the audience while the ensemble responded with instrumental flatulence.

At its best, Zappa’s music boldly presaged the breaking down of barriers between pop and new classical music with restless imagination and refreshing irreverence. At its worst, Zappa’s concert music could be insistently defensive, messy, silly and headache-inducing. Zappa absorbed music widely but didn’t always digest it well.
“Yellow Shark” demonstrated, I think, that Zappa was on to something, and had he lived we might now be celebrating the 70th birthday of a major composer. Instead we have to deal with a less than satisfying situation in which pieces from various albums have been arranged by Ali N. Askin (who also worked with Zappa on “Yellow Shark”) for Ensemble Modern in hopes that weird and in-your-face orchestrations might make this material what it is not.

Friday’s concert, which also included two short works by Edgar Varèse (“Density 21.5” and “Octandre”) -- the modernist composer who most inspired Zappa – started out fresh and exciting with the “Yellow Shark” material. It ended tired and old with Askin’s arrangements created for Ensemble Modern in 2000 and released on an album called “Greggery Peccary & Other Persuasions.”

Still, the performances, brilliantly conducted by Brad Lubman, were dynamite. And who knows, maybe a few of the old-timers who showed up for Zappa (the Bowl and lawn were sold out Friday) were inspired to stick around for Messiaen or the music of this year’s eloquent music director, the British composer George Benjamin. The festival concludes Sunday.

-- Mark Swed

Photos, from top: Zappa-istas on the Libbey Bowl lawn at the Ojai Festival Friday night. Credit: Mark Swed / Los Angeles Times; Hermann Kretzschmar performing Frank Zappa’s ‘Welcome to the United States. Credit: Robert Millard / Ojai Festival; Dawn Upshaw. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times


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