Opera Crowd Whoops for Zappa

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By Robert Commanday
San Francisco Chronicle, February 11, 1983


Strange goings-on in the Opera House Wednesday. Some 2500 folk, mostly under 30s, vividly gotten up and down for the occasion, were there sitting in quiet awe of four delicately colored works by Anton Webern and wowed by Edgard Varèse's modernist "music noises," sensuous and otherwise. [Varèse and Webern: One Hundredth Anniversary Celebration program]

Loud whoops went up periodically, a surprising one after the first of Webern's "Six Lieder," Op. 14, but mostly to greet the appearance onstage of rock heroes Frank Zappa and Grace Slick. It was the Varèse-Webern dual centennial celebration mounted by Jean-Louis LeRoux' San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, a benefit.

Zappa was there to conduct the Varèse "songs" as emcee Slick routinely called them: "Ionisation" (1931) to open, and "Intégrales" (1925) to close the program. Zappa had acknowledged Varèse's music as most influential on him, turning him around musically in high school. He took his untypically formal role seriously. He shushed the greeting, responded to some shouts with "Let's get serious," turned, gave the beat in an audible "One, two, three, four" and awkwardly stroked out the conducting patterns, mouthing the count.

His strict marking of time and meter changes was enough for the SFCM Players to give Varèse a good, rhythmically clean, dynamically balanced go. "Ionization," with 13 percussionists on 34 instruments, was effective but no longer shocking, having made its influential point years ago. "Intégrales" for 11 winds, four percussion, was the hit, evocative of some primitive ritual, of contrabass shofars, battle horns, deep-lying forces.

The original three-track tape for "Poème Electronique" (1958) was startling though broadcast over the Opera House's only two speakers instead of 425 speakers as in Le Corbusier's building at the 1958 Brussels World Fair. Varèse's pure talent and instincts shone through in his uses of "concrete" sounds, ideas and fabric created at the dawn of electronic music – a little later actually, about 9 a.m. While "Poème" breaks down formally midway, it's much more musical and exciting than a majority of stuff produced by electronickers (not composers) using 1960-83 technology.

Judith Cline, not Grace Slick, was the excellent soprano, for the two French songs in Varèse's "Offrandes" (1921) for which LeRoux carefully restrained and balanced the post-impressionist chamber orchestral score. The originality of the rough-hewn musical sonorities, the varied textures, bright, dense, airy, was arresting.

The fragility of the exquisitely detailed word-expression in Webern's Six Lieder (Cline with chamber ensemble) and Three Lieder, Op. 25, (Cline, with Marvin Tartak, piano) has to be lost on a non-German-speaking audience and in the big Opera House, despite the fine and sensitized performance onstage. It was unfair to Webern, unfair but not altogether a futile exercise. Perceived as beautiful abstraction but not so intended, the refined play of color and design at least drew respectful attention.

More to Webern's due was accorded by Marvin Tartak in an expressively rich, authentically romantic performance of Webern's Variations for Piano, Op. 27. His interpretation, following instructions from one who studied it with Webern, was not cool and ascetic but warm and intense. It's poetic music, not less but more passionate for being so fleeting.

Before the final "Intégrales," LeRoux conducted Webern's chamber orchestration of the Fuga (Ricercata) from Bach's "Musical Offering." It is the most famous entry into Bach through the ears of another great composer.

The distribution of notes in each line among the single instruments acts as arrows of color or flags defining the sharp, phrase, clarifying counterpoint, pointing out the events and process. A larger original Webern orchestral work would have been fairer representation but this was immediate, simpler and pleased the young audience.

There were lengthy changes of orchestral set-up which ought to have been rehearsed but the crowd was respectful, attentive and patient. The SFCM Players were rewarded for the unconventional event itself, and properly. Popularizing Webern on a grand scale and with rock stars for bait? Well, no harm done.