Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Zappa in Memorium

Frank Vincent Zappa, December 21, 1940 – December 4, 1993

Because I did one of those "Album Challenges" on Facebook last week, where I visited musical influences from long ago, I feel the need to observe the anniversary of Frank Zappa's passing on Dec 4, 1993, at the age of 52.  Besides, it comes up every year on my iPhone's calendar.  

I often wonder how Zappa will be regarded in the future.  There have been other mysterious or hard-to-pigeonnhole composer/musicians of the past.  Renaissance motet composer Carlo Gesualdo wrote impossibly dissonant music for his time and is said to have murdered his wife.  What could they have thought of him in his time?  Erik Satie, who wrote piano pieces that are at first acquaintance imbecilic, are uniquely transcendent.  John Cage, told by Arnold Schoenberg that his poor instinct for harmony would be a barrier to success, devoted himself to bashing his head against and ultimately through that wall.

As much of a Frank fanboy I am, I don't have a prediction of the future's appreciation of him.  I can't claim to understand his catalogue, not the whole of it.  I saw Zappa perform live when I was barely 14.  (I reviewed it from recollection here.)  Later, at 20, It was hard for me to stomach when he dished out new kinds of gross-out humor, transparently juvenile to me, for the next crop of 14-year-olds.  I also didn't care for how his later writing increasingly incorporated 90's pop trends (at one point there was entirely too much reggae in everything), and his bands were less and less made up of oddball personalities and disparate geniuses from all corners of the musical universe, and more and more of technicians who memorized the notes and collected a paycheck.

But he could write amazing orchestra works with hints of Webern and Stravinsky (200 Motels), while still including the rude saxophone honk here or there and the punctuation of a broken cymbal crash at the end.  He used the occasion of a near-death concert accident in London...only 6 months after I saw him change directions from rock to composing, producing and playing from the wheelchair two fantastic jazz albums (Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo).  As early as 1967 he made electronic and tape-edited music (Lumpy Gravy) that today's computer-assisted electronica artists can only dream of creating.  His credentials as a rocker and guitarist are unquestioned, but his ability to create long-form rock-ensemble pieces like Little House I Used to Live In, Billy the Mountain, and the four-song medley from Apostrophe' (with the infamous Yellow Snow beginning) has no comparison with any other rocker.  He could keep you alternately surprised, smiling, or toe-tapping by hopping from dead-on imitations of broadway musicals to feel-good pop anthems, rock headbangers, abstruse jazz counterpoint or the theme from the Johnny Carson show with an ingenuity equalled only by Spike Jones in the 1940's.

Students at Pomona College once perfectly executed the sight gag of placing ZAPPA along side WAGNER, MOZART and BRAHMS on the frieze of stately and highfalutin' Bridges Auditorium.  While I hold Frank Zappa as dearly as the composers of Parsifal, the Rite of Spring and Concerto for Orchestra, I don't try to place him among them.  It's not a fit, and I don't need there to be one.  The conception of what Frank Zappa "was" is in a future we cannot yet fathom.  

Monday, November 11, 2019

Santa Cecilia Orchestra: El amor brujo and Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony

Flamenco dancer María Bermúdez performing El Amor Brujo

If one needed evidence for why Symphonic Music is the crown jewel of performing arts and worthy of the expense, then you needed only be at yesterday's concert of the Santa Cecilia Orchestra, conducted by Sonia Marie de Leon at Occidental College in Los Angeles to get all the evidence you need.

Maestra de Leon took on the challenging Symphony No. 4 ("Italian") by Felix Mendelssohn.  Mendelssohn, whose mastery of orchestration warrants more attention, used the full forces of orchestral color and challenging, fast passagework for strings in this work, and which the SCO executed handily, and flawlessly.  The dimensionality of Mendelssohn's writing, the play of timbres, blocks of sounds coming from different spatial locations, that can go unappreciated in a recorded performance, were scrumptiously on display in the wonderful acoustics of Occidental's Thorne Hall.  The echo of the room, as well as the spatial distance between players, gave the scurrying violin work in the first movement the sound of multiple lines in harmony with each other, even though the parts are written with no divisi.  Another wonderful moment occurred just before the recapitulation where the strings were busily working out a subsidiary theme in a crowded, murky texture, and the main theme appeared out of this sounding like a Cathedral rising out of the sea.  Passages where the French Horns had prominent, exposed material---a risk even for top flight orchestras---were executed flawlessly and with gusto by SCO's high calibre players.  The Occidental audience reacted to end of movement 1 with joyful, unrestrained applause, and a standing ovation at the end of the work.

The entire second half was occupied by an inspired concert staging of Manuel de Falla's ballet El amor brujo that should command the attention of the entire Los Angeles community as a landmark event in Performing Arts.  Guest Flamenco dancer, actress and singer María Bermúdez performed the written vocal parts accompanied by Flamenco dancing, danced as well to the instrumental orchestra movements, and again during added interludes by two performers from her critically acclaimed Sonidos Gitanos and Chicana Gypsy Project.  Her singing, as well as the singing of Pele de los Reyes (of the group Navajita Plateá), was not of the concert-hall opera-singer variety, but the full-throated, husky and passionate style of Moorish-influenced Spanish gypsies.  Yet she commanded the stage like a Maria Callas, and with her head high and looking into the infinite distance, she filled the far corners of the auditorium with her voice.  (If there was any amplified support to her singing, it was transparent to the audience.)  In the Danza ritual del fuego (Ritual Fire Dance) she multiplied her stature by two with brilliant, furious twirling and draping of her magnificent red shawl, the timed falling of the fabric perfectly in sync with the rhythms of the orchestra.  It commanded from the audience a lengthy standing ovation of its own, despite being only an inner movement.  The two added musicians, with virtuoso flamenco guitarist Andres Vadin (wearing a splendid black leather suit) helped complete the imagery, along with Ms. Bermúdez' beautiful costume, that a Barcelona Gypsy tavern had been lifted from Spain and placed on a Los Angeles stage.  Despite the fact that the interspersed movements from the Gypsy Project were creative additions by Maestra de Leon and the SCO, they mingled flawlessly with De Falla's 1915 score, and in doing so gave modern testimony to the veracity of De Falla's sources of inspiration.  Also notable were the solo contribution of first chair cellist Cathy Biagini, and the piano textures from performer Bryan Pezzone.

The concert also included "Dance of the Furies" from Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice.  Heard from the foyer due to my late arrival to the concert, I detected the same mastery of performance that I heard in the "Italian" Symphony when I was seated.

It seems like the growth of the SCO, and its companion institution the Santa Cecilia Arts and Learning Center has no end in sight. The concerts keep getting better and better, with the Thorne Hall venue at Occidental supplying first rate support (sound engineering, ushering, lighting) commensurate with the professional calibre of their performing.

Sonia Marie de Leon with supporters after the concert