The True Story of the LSO
By David Ocker
Sun, 20 Nov 1994 11:27:56
I think I can shed some light on the LSO recording sessions – I was there at all the recordings and rehearsals (except maybe one string section), I knew the music very well and performed on one piece. I was standing about 5 feet from the trumpet players when they finally did return from lunch and watched the LSO personnel manager ask one for some change for the payphone so he 'could call some new trumpet players' – it seemed to be a subtle joke as if to say that he had noticed which players had screwed up. He certainly didn't say 'You'll never work in this town again.'
Were the trumpeters late? Yes. Had they been drinking? Probably. Were they drunk? Not that I could tell. Was their playing worse after lunch? Probably. I'd believe Frank and he thought so.
As far as I know Frank paid the LSO exactly what they asked for including any overtime payments. I'm confident that union rules were scrupulously followed. When I learned the base session rate ('50 sticks in my mind – but I could be wrong) I was amazed at how LOW it was. The rates here in L.A. were over twice that. The LSO was a busy free-lance orchestra – something was always happening – the sessions were in January and the orchestra (as a whole) did not have a free day till the following MAY.
Since the Zappa sessions were not a high priority, many of the principal players chose to take those weeks off – and there seemed to be many non-regular players who had some of the best attitudes (probably they wanted either more work or regular positions in the LSO.)
The orchestra as a whole was unwilling when it came to doing (paid) overtime There was one overtime session that I remember – just clarinets and bassoons to record some of the more fiendish sections of Mo 'n Herb's Vacation, First Movement. Some of those players were still unhappy 'cause the overtime would finish after pub closing, so someone was sent to procure some alcohol to bring back to the session. He returned with two fifths of hard whiskey (for 7 guys) and the players happily poured themselves 4oz. portions into paper cups.
Overall the members of the orchestra were very friendly – one bassoonist had played 200 Motels in the RPO and had asked to be on this gig. I'm sure that when we Americans were out of earshot they complained long and loud about how difficult the music was. Of course, they are not paid extra just because the music is difficult. And believe me, that music was hard, hard, hard.
Some did the absolute mimimum to get by – others knuckled down and played their parts well (the timpanist blew us away by playing what I thought was a virtually impossible part and he did it on just two kettles.) Given the amount of rehearsal time, I feel that the orchestra did a very creditable job overall, both playing and recording Frank's music. Give much of the credit to Kent Nagano (who, you'll notice, now works with the LSO regularly).
Was it perfect (i.e. up to Frank's standards and expectations)? No way! Not even close.
But it must be said that the performances could only have improved if the amount of 'elbow bending' had been reduced. By American orchestra standards there was a lot of liquor being drunk by the musicians. The Barbican had a full bar backstage just for the orchestra. It was well used. I admit that this behavior dumbfounded me. The orchestra played much less well in the second half of the concert than on the first. I remember that distinctly. Frank was aghast at all this – he was paying his good money for musicians to perform for him. A guy in the band who abused drugs in that way would have been out on his ear before he had finished his last swallow.
Now let me talk about Frank. In my opinion, Frank was a genius of a composer, an exceptional arranger and a very good orchestrator. There's an intentional descending scale in that sentence. Of course he hired people (like me) to catch the little mistakes and keep all the details straight – he didn't make big mistakes. He knew what he wanted and he knew when something was being played correctly or when it wasn't.
HOWEVER, Frank Zappa did not understand classical musicians' attitudes.
Frank hadn't the foggiest notion of what it was like to show up at a session, take out your instrument, have someone slam a sheet of music in front of you and be expected to cut it, then be told to do it differently by some composer or conductor or other and still not develop a bad attitude.
At best the orchestra was kind of a big rock band to him. At worst it was like a big synthesizer. Tweak a knob and – presto – the sound changes – but the knob doesn't complain if it's made to work too hard or develop a 'tude when the composer complains about its performance. Live performers do – especially when they got the same pay for playing footballs and background swill the week before. Had Frank not wasted everyone's time by trying to come up with a new seating scheme for the Barbican concert, the performances would likely have improved a lot more than had everyone stayed stone sober for 2 weeks.
Frank Zappa mercilessly ridiculed the players of the LSO both in private and public. I don't think they deserved that sort of treatment. But when he did it he had his facts right – he just interpreted the facts to support his notion of what was going on. Yes, he was constantly having bad experiences with classical musicians all through his career – and I'm sure there's always two diametrically opposed ways of looking at what actually happened: Frank's and the orchestra's. I'm here to say that the truth was probably somewhere between the two.
Frank's experiences with Ensemble Modern proved that this conflict didn't have to exist. Pity that the EM sessions happened so late. Someday maybe we can all imagine whole orchestras of players with the capabilities and positive attitudes of EM playing Frank's orchestra music – try to visualize 5 different interpretations of Pedro's Dowry in the record bins – or a 'note perfect' version of Sinister Footwear. It won't happen till the managers of the orchestras realize that they can sell tickets by playing Zappa. But the Zappa fans won't like the music if it's badly played which it will be for a long time to come because it's so damn hard
And the performances won't get any better till the players knuckle down and learn the music and are given enough rehearsal and some conductor digs into the scores and figures out how to make it sound like Frank meant it. And that's even less likely to happen when there are lots of orchestra players both here and in Europe telling each other stories about what a downer it is to play Zappa orchestra pieces.
But also remember that the Rite of Spring is now routinely played by youth orchestras and all professional orchestras pride themselves on doing Le Sacre note perfect-ly. Maybe Frank Zappa's music too will reach that level. We can only hope.
Reproduced with permission from David Ocker. Further information from David on the LSO and other experiences with FZ are available at BillLantz's Web Site.