Concert:nova plays the #*appa outta Zappa

January 23, 2012

Thom Mariner
Thom Mariner
Co-publisher, Express Cincinnati

Frank Zappa composed classical music, you say? Really? Isn’t he the guy who wrote songs about yellow snow and being a dental floss tycoon in Montana soon?

Sunday evening, to a standing-room-only crowd at the 20th Century in Oakley Square, concert:nova paid tribute to the diverse, organic and unique creativity of Frank Zappa, American Composer, 1940-1993.

When I was in high school, we used to snigger conspiratorially at Zappa’s lyrics, which we saw as juicily irreverent and oh-so daring. At that age, we had no clue what his music was all about. I think we saw it as just a vehicle for his silliness. Turns out, the man was a certifiable genius. Who knew?! Leave it to concert:nova, Cincinnati’s genre-bending chamber music series, to explore the musical life of this much-misunderstood trailblazer.

The first half of the concert alternated performances of Zappa’s early rock output with classical pieces that especially influenced him as a composer. Leading off was “Hungry Freaks, Daddy,” the first track from the debut album by Zappa’s Mothers of Invention from 1966. This was followed by “Octandre,” by Edgard Varèse, scored for seven wind instruments and double bass.

Igor Stravinsky – another important classical influence upon Zappa – was represented by his Octet for winds and brass, sandwiched between the title track to 1970 album “Chungas Revenge” and “Little Umbrellas” from 1969’s jazzy “Hot Rats.” These juxtapositions gave audience members a peek into the creative pathway Zappa took on his journey from political rebel to composer of “art music.”

The first-half concept worked because of first-class performances by rock band members Dave McConnell, Roger Klug, Julie Spangler, Erica Drake, Matt Zory and Ted Nelson, as well as the two excellent chamber ensembles. Klug’s scorching guitar was the highlight, solidifying his stature as a peerless master of both technique and creativity.

What’s important to note about Zappa’s rock offerings is that, like the classical music from which they drew their influence, they don’t bowl you over with waves of sound. Instead, they tickle your ears and mind with nuance and cleverness, inviting repeated listening. It’s a shame that this concert was only presented once.

Both the Varèse and Stravinsky were expertly delivered, with much of the credit going to conductor Edwin Outwater, who was solid and extremely clear in his leadership of these rhythmically challenging compositions.

Concert:nova is well-known for its multimedia approach to concerts, and this was no different with video clips serving as continuity, further illustrating Zappa’s transformation from nerdy, eccentric guest on the Steve Allen Show to acerbic, surrealist social commentator in his movie “200 Motels.”

The second half featured Zappa’s purely instrumental classical compositions, ranging from 1972’s “Big Swifty,” for brass ensemble and drum set, to “The Perfect Stranger,” a piece Zappa recorded in conjunction with Pierre Boulez in 1984, as well as several excerpts from “The Yellow Shark,” released by Boulez’s Ensemble Modern in 1993, just a month prior to Zappa’s death.

It was fascinating to hear how Zappa, a self-taught composer, absorbed the influences surrounding him and made them his own, with a special ability to exploit the unique characteristics of specific instruments. The colors and textures are one-of-a-kind, spiraling effortlessly through genres from rock to jazz and the most avant-garde. But everything is infused with scads of the personality and humor that are uniquely Zappa. It was fun to see orchestral musicians actually smiling while playing!

In terms of what might have been better, several of the Zappa classical pieces sounded as if they needed just one more rehearsal. This is fiendishly difficult music. Also, a more polished overall sense of continuity would give the evening a better sense of flow. Transitions could have been smoother and tighter, and the introduction, while charmingly delivered, could have been cut by half, and perhaps would have worked better after intermission. It’s important to grab the audience as quickly as possible, and most of the information was available in the program.

The finale, Yellow Shark’s final track “G-Spot Tornado,” was a Dionysian dervish highly deserving of the encore: “Peaches en Regalia” from “Hot Rats.” The resulting standing ovation (all too common these days) was sincere, appreciative and long. The crowd was diverse in age and sensibility, drawing from c:n’s existing chamber music fan base, Zappa devotees from his earliest years, and younger fans who came to experience the legend live.

Bravo to Ixi Chen, concert:nova artistic director, for pulling together this fascinating, varied and complex tribute, and to Al Lopez and the c:n board of trustees for their support in making it possible, and for helping to create the wonderfully campy ambiance with fake Zappa mustaches, a fun photo booth, and posters for sale.

If you haven’t yet experienced a concert:nova performance, put Sunday, April 29, 3 p.m. on your calendar, when c:n and VAE: Cincinnati’s Vocal Arts Ensemble collaborate on a program at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. or


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