OWhen the Barbican last paid tribute to its orchestral music, in 1983, Frank Zappa said it was a disaster. He hated the acoustics of the hall, demanded that the orchestra be rigorously divided to facilitate the mixing process, criticized conductor Kent Nagano, accused members of the London Symphony Orchestra of being drunk and claimed to have committed hundreds errors. And it was a performance that received a 20-minute standing ovation, suggesting the notoriously perfectionist Zappa might have been his worst critic.
We often see rock stars meddling with the classical world much like a dog walking on its hind legs, but Zappa was composing for orchestras long before he made rock albums. As well as containing many sly references to his 20th-century modernist heroes, Zappa’s densely written scores often sound like a dozen different movie soundtracks playing simultaneously: Carl Stalling’s chaotic cartoon scores accompanied by Bollywood violins ; Psycho strings mixed with Gershwin-esque romanticism; Spooky spy movie woodwinds versus thunderous car chase percussion.
This all-day celebration began with a screening of Alex Winter’s excellent 2020 documentary Zappa and featured a Q&A with Zappa biographer Ben Watson (punctuated by a suitably Dada supporting cast of musicians -esque on rattles, bells and typewriters, planted among the audience). It ended with an evening performance at Barbican Hall featuring 90 members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra: this Mahler-sized ensemble required an expanded stage that encompassed the first six rows of seats in the auditorium , and its size allowed it to go from pianissimo to deafening. , fortissimo with heavy percussion. This suited works like Pedro’s Dowry and Bob In Dacron, where short themes develop as they are tossed from one part of the orchestra to another (only the last piece, the ballad 6/ 8 Strictly Genteel, transitioned to a dreary classic rock bomb).
But the highlight of the day could have been the afternoon concert at the smaller Milton Court, where young Guildhall students from the Ubu Ensemble worked on excerpts from Zappa’s latest orchestral work, The Yellow Shark, from 1993. Even alongside some intriguing obscurity from his idols Stravinsky, Webern and Varese, Zappa’s witty, impressionistic, jazz-tinged miniatures more than held their own.