concert Review: An Evening of The Music of Frank Zappa

  CONDUCTED BY JOEL THOME
  SEATTLE SYMPHONY * BAND FROM UTOPIA * THE PERSUASIONS
  
   By Cai Campbell.
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   I still can't believe that Frank has left this planet. Not a day goes
   by where I don't feel his presence. His influence on my life has been
   subtle and pervasive. He has the dubious honor of being the most
   frequent character in my often colorful dreams. I miss that man very
   much.
   
   I have a few regrets in this life, and one that nears the top of my
   list is not ever having seen Frank Zappa perform live. When I heard
   that there was going to be a tribute concert in my home town, complete
   with symphony and electric band, I knew I had to be there. It would be
   the closest I would ever get to experiencing the man himself (unless
   you count his visitations in my dreams.)
   
   Frank Zappa was a critical, meticulous artist; some might even call
   him a control freak. The thought of a concert performance of his music
   without his presence --his ever insistent shadow-- bordered on the
   absurd. Still, the thought intrigued me.
   
   The night had been arranged by Joel Thome, a long-time admirer and
   some time collaborator with Frank. Joel has been widely acclaimed as
   an accomplished interpreter of both classical and contemporary
   orchestral music and as a strikingly effective conductor of opera, and
   other music/theater works. He had been involved with projects as
   diverse as 'The Age of Varese' before meeting Frank. It seemed natural
   that the two would eventually meet. After all, Edgard Varese was the
   motivating factor behind Frank's decision to become a composer.
   
   Joel worked with Frank on the 'Zappa's Universe' project, which won a
   Grammy in 1994 for 'Best Rock Instrumental.' Joel was becoming more
   and more appreciative of Frank's work, and in his own words, has said,
   'What struck me immediately was the wonderful, even startling
   originality of his work and the depth of knowledge that was involved
   in it. Right away I noticed how often he would credit Anton Webern,
   Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky and, in particular, Edgard Varese.
   I felt that a composer who paid this sort of homage to colleagues was
   a very special person indeed.'
   
   The evening was to begin with three orchestrated pieces which Frank
   had written for a project called 'The Perfect Stranger,' which Joel
   originally conducted in 1993. The Seattle Symphony is good, and I'm
   sure under Joel's direction, they could achieve brilliance, but I
   wondered about Frank's primary criticism with performances of his own
   orchestrated works. He has said:
   
     'I don't think there are going to be that many composers in the
     future. ...You can't just write music. I don't think it was ever
     really that much better, but things are getting especially tough now
     because there are no budgets for the performances, no budgets for
     rehearsal. If a chamber group or an orchestra does a performance of
     something, it's probably something that's already been written for
     hundreds of years, and the orchestra already knows it, which means
     that they don't have to spend money for rehearsal. They play only
     the hits...'
     
   Learning to play a new piece is tough enough, but when you consider
   the complexities in Frank's music, which challenges even the most
   advanced musicians, I had to wonder just how Frank would feel if he
   were there. Suddenly a chill went down my spine, for I had the feeling
   that he was there. This night was for him and he was there. As
   critical as ever. I could feel him cringe as the orchestra began to
   warm up.
   
   The orchestrated set consisted of three pieces: 'The Perfect
   Stranger', 'Naval Aviation in Art?', and 'Dupree's Paradise.' Overall,
   they were enjoyable, but the orchestra seemed strained, and slightly,
   almost imperceptibly, out of synch with the spirit of the piece. The
   audience adored the performance, but I could see Frank frowning,
   shaking his head, and holding his hands to his ears. Except for the
   second piece, 'Naval Aviation In Art?' The spirit seemed to flow and
   the orchestra struck a mood which was truly inspired... and then it
   ended. It was all too short of a piece.
   
   During the intermission, the crew began setting up the equipment for
   the second half of the show. I was getting excited! A drum kit, an
   electric piano, electric guitars, and was that Ike Willis mingling
   with the fans? The second half of the set had alumni from Frank's own
   band joining the orchestra! Along with Ike Willis, there was Tommy
   Mars, Walter Fowler, Chad Wackerman, Tom Fowler, and the star
   attraction, guitarist Steve Vai. They called themselves 'The Band from
   Utopia,' named after one of Frank's albums. Joining this lineup was
   the vocal group, The Persuasions, whom Frank had heard in 1970 and
   signed to a recording contract on his own Straight Records.
   
   Ike Willis was the star of the evening, hamming it up with the crowd
   and displaying a cheerful and playful demeanor. All the musicians had
   their chance to shine under the spotlight, and it was very apparent
   why Frank had hand-picked these individuals to be in his band. The
   performances were truly fine, and they worked very well with the
   orchestra. Some moments were truly inspired and you could feel the
   spirit of Frank summoned forth in full magical force.
   
   Highlights included a unique a capella version of 'Lucille Has Messed
   My Mind Up' performed by The Persuasions. The song 'Sofa' was
   performed flawlessly, and the fusion of jazz, orchestra, blues, and
   rock blended so perfectly that you would swear there was only one
   music; THE music. But the highlight of the evening was a spectacular
   version of 'Inca Roads.' Not a single nuance was out of place. The
   orchestra, rhythm, searing guitars, complex vocal arrangements, and
   syncopated harmony of the piece all fell into place, leaving no doubt
   as to what Frank had envisioned when he wrote it.
   
   There were other magical moments and a few disappointments. Frank's
   extended whimsical jazz orchestra piece 'Waka Jawaka' was gaining
   steam and taking on a life all it's own when the horn section of the
   orchestra seemed to stumble. Joel tried desperately and emotionally to
   eke some passion out of them, but they floundered and the piece went
   down with them. Again I felt Frank's frustration as he seemingly
   pulled at his hair.
   
   Frank Zappa, the man, is gone from this world, but we can be eternally
   grateful for the rich legacy he has left behind. As long as there are
   daredevils such as Joel Thome to continue to push the boundaries and
   expand the horizons of Frank Zappa's music, we will always have the
   man with us. In that knowledge we can find great comfort.
   
   
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