Review: L.A. Philharmonic premieres Frank Zappa's '200 Motels'

by Jay Gabler, Minnesota Public Radio
October 24, 2013

LOS ANGELES — When the evening started with the entire Los Angeles Philharmonic doing the wave, I knew that October 23 wasn't going to be an ordinary night at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Another clue was the fact that the late Frank Zappa — played by "Larry the Dwarf" (don't ask), played by Jeff Taylor — was seated among the players on a raised neon chair.

It was the world premiere of Zappa's 200 Motels—The Suites, as imagined for this lofty new setting by director James Darrah in consultation with the composer's widow Gail Zappa and other knowledgeable sources — including Zappa collaborators Ian Underwood and Scott Carter Thunes, both of whom performed with the rock/orchestral/choral ensemble on Wednesday night.

200 Motels was a 1971 film by Zappa; it's been called "a surrealistic documentary" and "almost unwatchable." In the film, Zappa's band the Mothers of Invention find themselves in a small town, where they go crazy from boredom (among other things). The wildly ambitious score, released as a soundtrack, includes a mixture of rock and orchestral music and has divided even Zappa partisans.

For the Philharmonic performance, it was arranged into a 90-minute set of suites, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen and featuring an enormous group of players including the orchestra, a rock band, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, and a cast of singers who also enacted scenes that had them rolling in literal dirt; self-pleasuring; and waving outsize light-up dildos (yes, you read that right).

The production was nothing if not committed, and was rapturously received by the capacity crowd, who jumped to their feet for an ovation and called the performers back for multiple curtain calls.

Zappa, a self-taught composer, had an uneasy relationship with the classical firmament — a planned Royal Albert Hall concert of the 200 Motels music was canceled on the basis that Zappa's lyrics were obscene (by pretty much any definition, in fairness to the venue, they are). Wednesday night's performance was thus sweet revenge for Zappa buffs, but you didn't have to be a Zappa fan — I'm not — to enjoy the evening tremendously. Zappa knew how to have fun with an orchestra, and Salonen swept the score's eccentricities up in a coherent vision, holding firm to tempo and tone even during the show's most far-out moments.

200 Motels might be better in 2013 than it ever could have been in 1971 — and not just because of the performers' caliber. Separated from the film and from its era, the music stands well on its own. As a composer, Zappa effectively harnesses the power of an orchestra while aggressively undercutting any solemnities or pieties one might be inclined to bring into a concert hall. (Not that Zappa invented richly scored scandal: on Wednesday night, a scene where soprano Hila Plitmann stripped to a teddy and had her way with a comatose Zappa clone felt like an aptly Me Decade successor to the climax of Strauss's Salome.)

Further, our relationship to those tumultuous times has developed shades of ambiguity that, for Zappa, were there all along. 200 Motels doesn't have the snappy tunes of Hair, but it may now be preferable to that contrived counterculture capsule as a representation of how the spirit of the '60s was at once liberating and ludicrous.

"Help everybody, so they all get some action," boomed the Los Angeles Master Chorale in the finale, "Some love on the weekend, some real satisfaction!" On Wednesday night, some might have left Disney Hall without having been satisfied, but we'd certainly all got quite a lot of action.

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