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Frank Zappa's '200 Motels' checking in at Disney Hall

The late rock iconoclast Frank Zappa's wildly irreverent work '200 Motels' will get its first full staging as part of Disney Hall's 10-year birthday party.

October 19, 2013|By Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times
  • A portrait of musician Frank Zappa and his wife Gail, September 15th, 1972.
A portrait of musician Frank Zappa and his wife Gail, September 15th, 1972. (Archive Photos / Getty Images )

At Wednesday's 10th birthday party for Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Los Angeles Philharmonic will perform the world premiere of Frank Zappa's "200 Motels." It's made up of 13 orchestral suites by the late L.A. rock star and composer, only parts of which surfaced in his 1971 "200 Motels" feature film and double-LP soundtrack album.

Zappa, who died 20 years ago of cancer just short of 53, devoted much of his creative energy to humorous scoffing at most aspects of the human condition. He luxuriated in scatology and didn't hesitate to dwell cartoonishly on what Monty Python called "the nasty bits." "200 Motels" is no exception.

He was not the type to relish birthdays, noting in his 1989 autobiography, "The Real Frank Zappa Book," that he couldn't stand Thanksgiving, Christmas "or any other traditional family gathering." But even Zappa might have been tickled at the thought that he would commandeer one of the world's great concert halls on its 10th birthday, filling its stage with 166 performers, including Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting a 115-member orchestra.

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Among other things, faithfully performing the score of "200 Motels" will induce the L.A. Phil, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, 13 singer-actors (among them Diva Zappa, the youngest of the composer's four children, who plays a groupie named Janet) and a five-member rock band to essay a suite called "Penis Dimension." While singing it, each of the 32 chorus members will brandish an illuminated sex toy, per Zappa's written instructions.

While his devotees may wish to classify Zappa's penchant for dwelling on anatomical parts and bodily functions as Rabelaisian,others have dismissed it as puerile. There's less to argue over when it comes to the composer's wide-ranging and idiosyncratic musical imagination, displayed in his complex rock music and in the orchestral compositions he worked on persistently from his midteens onward and not just as a sidelight.

Growing up in the San Diego and L.A. suburbs during the 1950s, Zappa fell in love with the R&B and doo-wop groups he collected on 45s and with the 20th century classical composers Edgard Varese and Igor Stravinsky. His subsequent career followed both tracks, and "200 Motels" may be where they most prominently intersect.

Salonen, who guided Disney Hall's launch a decade ago, programmed its first six seasons as the L.A. Phil's music director and has an ongoing connection as the orchestra's conductor laureate, chuckled frequently recently while discussing "200 Motels." He'll conduct the piece amid a seven-concert 10th-anniversary series in which he's also leading the Phil in programs featuring Debussy, Bartok, Ives, Sibelius and his own violin concerto.

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"We were scratching our heads for a long time, wondering what to do" for the night of Oct. 23, marking exactly 10 years since the hall's opening night, Salonen said. Then the L.A. Phil's artistic team suggested he peek into the score of "200 Motels."

Salonen had owned rock albums by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention during his youth in Helsinki — "I was very attracted by this anarchic, irreverent spirit of his," he recalls — and has conducted some of Zappa's shorter pieces in Europe. Around 1990, after Zappa learned Salonen was to be the L.A. Phil's next music director, he invited the young conductor to the Laurel Canyon home he'd bought in 1968. They looked over some of Zappa's unpublished scores and listened to unreleased electronic music.

But Zappa's music was heard just once in Salonen's 17 years as music director. "There's no real reason why," he said, "other than that I was busy commissioning work by composers who were alive." David Robertson conducted the only piece done on Salonen's watch, the eight-minute "Dupree's Paradise" in 2008. In 2009, during Gustavo Dudamel's first season as music director, John Adams anchored a concert with selections from one of Zappa's last orchestral works, "The Yellow Shark."

Salonen said that when he opened the "200 Motels" score, "I thought, 'This is very mad and therefore very attractive. It's about time I got my little hands on this one.'"

"It's a lot of fun, it's outrageous, it's kind of incomprehensible at times," he elaborated. "It goes between the trashiest of sentiments to real interesting and really profound thoughts and everything in between. The one thing that's completely missing from the piece is reverence, which is a very nice change."

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Salonen said he must have seen at least snatches of the "200 Motels" film but didn't remember the music or any of the scenes.

It's a famously chaotic movie — partly because Zappa, shooting in a London studio with his band, assorted actors and dancers and a less-than-unanimously-enthusiastic Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, had less than a week of filming and completed only a fraction of what he'd intended.

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