The Berkeley Symphony Plays Frank Zappa

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By Terry Hawkins
KPFA Folio, June 1984
Frank Zappa and close friends.


When does a rock star cease being a rock star and become a serious composer? With the recent recording of orchestral works by Frank Zappa, such is the question that must now be asked of that iconoclast of iconoclasts. From the beginning, with such violently anti-commercial material as The Return Of The Son Of Monster Magnet, Brown Shoes Don't Make It, Lumpy Gravy, and Weasels Ripped My Flesh, Zappa continually has attempted to not merely cross over the boundaries of rock music, but ignore them entirely. The early Mothers of Invention concerts were always a treat. One never knew what to expect: from an unadulterated Mozart piano sonata to a serenade to vacuum cleaners and chimes. Zappa would test the limits of the audience's endurance, and when that point had been reached, majestically raise his middle finger and bellow, "Is all you people want a fucking Motown beat?" and proceed to give just that.

There were always rumors floating about that Zappa was busy writing music other than what he put on his rock albums – genuine orchestral music. Nothing ever appeared (despite an unfortunate concert with Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, when Zappa coined the semi-immortal phrase, "Hit it, Zubin"), and many simply forgot about his "other" music.

Last year, when Kent Nagano, director of the Berkeley Symphony, was in Paris at the Pompidou Center, he came across Zappa's name on the list of orchestral commissions by Pierre Boulez. His curiosity piqued, he contacted Zappa, asking for scores to look at, for possible performance by the Berkeley Symphony.

"I didn't know what to expect these scores to be like," Nagano recalls, "maybe Rodgers and Hammerstein, some insipid sort of thing. But I know I didn't expect to see a work of the difficulty of an Elliott Carter, the complexity of Boulez, the sincerity of Takemitsu, and the driving intensity of Varèse."

Apparently Nagano's interest in the scores rekindled Zappa's desire to have them performed. Several weeks later, he called Nagano, informing him that the London Symphony Orchestra had been hired, and would Kent be willing to conduct? The first recording was issued a few months ago, with a second one on the way.

On June 16th, at 8:00 pm, the Berkeley Symphony will present a concert devoted entirely to Zappa's works. It will be broadcast live on KPFA and will be the first in a series of live broadcasts of the Symphony which will continue through July. The series, an attempt to bring back the concept of the radio symphony orchestra, will be hosted by Terry Hawkins and Charles Amirkhanian.

The Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, playing the works of Frank Zappa, will be heard on Saturday, June 16th at 8:00 pm.