Years ago, Gail Zappa, the late Frank Zappa’s wife, sat on a floor with Todd Yvega and Ali Askin, two of Frank’s prized musical assistants, with pages and pages of music spread out across a large room. Together, they reconstructed the order of the suites in a score into what was always meant to be the orchestral work, 200 Motels. Gone was the rock and roll and other pieces that were included in 200 Motels, the 1971 concert film/psychedelic romp. While it was performed thirteen years ago at the Holland Festival in Amsterdam, the version that the LA Philharmonic Orchestra will be performing for the tenth anniversary of the Walt Disney Concert Hall on October 23rd is something that was a long time in the making.
“This score is more refined and it is actually very close, if not exact, to all the notes Frank actually wrote, in the order that he wrote them,” said Mrs. Zappa, “and that’s what we’re presenting.” More recently, Kurt Morgan, the bassist for Dweezil Zappa’s project, Zappa Plays Zappa, helped bring the project to completion. “The music for 200 Motels was originally intended for a piece called Music for the Queen’s Circus,” recalled Mrs. Zappa, but when this opportunity presented itself to Zappa, he repurposed some of the music. “This is a normal way of approaching things,” explained Mrs. Zappa. “You use what you’ve got and you add to it to make a whole piece.”
Choosing Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels felt like a natural fit for director James Darrah and VP of Artistic Planning for the LA Phil, Chad Smith. “They wanted to choose something that was unsentimental,” said Darrah. “This composer had such a presence in LA.” One of the piece’s earliest performances was at the Pauley Pavilion at UCLA in May of 1970, and Zappa spent most of his life in and around the Los Angeles area.
200 Motels is more than just an orchestral performance. It’s more than a theatrical performance. If you are timid about minimalist compositions, the humor and brashness will draw you in, and if you are a fan, you will get to see a modern master’s work performed as he originally conceived it. The show has a little bit of everything. “It doesn’t fall into any one category of presentation or style or staging,” said Darrah. “It’s got a large amount of possibility of how you can stage it and how you can present it.”
Sharing the stage with the LA Phil will be some musicians who were known for playing with Frank Zappa and/or his sons over the years. Most notably is Ian Underwood, a multi-instrumentalist who performed with Zappa in the early years of the Mothers of Invention from the late ’60s to the mid ’70s. Scott Thunes, a bassist from Zappa’s later years, affectionately knighted as the Clonemeister (he rehearsed the band when Zappa was otherwise engaged) will also be performing, along with Joe Travers, the Vaultmeister.
The work includes characters from the movie, such as Jeff Taylor as Larry the Dwarf, Rich Fulcher as Cowboy Burt and Matt Marks in the role of Mark Volman. The Zappas’ youngest, Diva, will also perform as Janet. They and others will interact with the orchestra, which is the main character itself. “We’re staging it, but we’re staging it because Frank had very specific instructions in the score about what he wanted the characters to be doing,” explained Smith. The large stage will be practically overflowing with a 40-piece choir, twelve soloists, a seven-piece rock band and an 80-member orchestra, including an enormous percussion section. Some of the seats in the hall had to be removed to accommodate the musicians and performers.
Prior to the concert, Chad Smith will be hosting a pre-concert talk. Later, Gail Zappa will participate in a Q&A session. World-renowned composer and conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen will be at the helm of the orchestra. Salonen was the music director of the LA Philharmonic for seventeen years (from 1992 to 2009). “When he came to America in the early ’90s,” said Smith, “Frank Zappa was one of first musicians to reach out and welcome him to the city.” Salonen too worked closely with Mrs. Zappa, James Darrah and Chad Smith to bring this classic piece of music to a new audience in a new way.