Los Angeles Music Review: 200 MOTELS (LA Phil at Walt Disney Concert Hall)

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by Jesse David Corti on November 3, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles


Any live performance of 200 Motels is bound to bear a degree of disappointment since its mastermind, Frank Zappa, is not alive to conduct the evening’s program, shred on guitar, or entertain audiences with his fiery passion. Musically more challenging, and arguably more ambitious than the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper or the Who’s Tommy and thematically more obtuse than Pink Floyd’s The Wall and the Beach Boys’ aborted Smile, Zappa presents a quasi-biographical, prank-documentarian work about the tolls of tour life and the inner goings-on of a band on the brink that presaged The Beatles acidic break-up documentary Let it Be, and the Band’s farewell concert film, The Last Waltz. The original film of 200 Motels is a bizarre, “far-fuckin’-out” trip which slides inside the very fabric of Zappa’s band, The Mothers of Invention. It utilized both rock and orchestral music with a weary wonkiness to epitomize the wear and tear of the continual bus-and-truck tours full of drugs, groupies, egos, and oh yeah, music and performing.

Frank Zappa

Esa Pekka-Salonen and the LA Phil attempted the herculean task of bringing quirky grandeur to this dense work that owes as much to Chuck Berry and Hank Williams as it does to John Cage and Igor Stravinsky (the work was first performed in May 1970, with the LA Phil conducted by Zubin Mehta). And in spite of the film’s 98-minute runtime, this concert flirted with 110 minutes; incorporating sketches and passages with which Zappa—along with whichever group of MOTHERS he was touring – continually tinkered.

Esa-Pekka Salonen

While one can appreciate the high-strung tenuous dissonance juxtaposed with playful sprechgesang and operatic soprano passages, the concert felt bizarrely un-hip in its handling of the eclectic material. Breaking boundaries and establishing new normal practices is par for the course when it comes to the LA Phil and Salonen. However, here I felt shortchanged by the censorship (the excision) of “pop-ier” songs (notably “Lonesome Burt” and “Mystery Roach”) in this sprawling work.

insideOUT - Walt Disney Concert Hall 10th Anniversary Celebration - POSTER

Sure, under James Darrah’s direction, there were phallus flashlights, dirt dumped onstage, and different members of the 115 piece orchestra and Los Angeles Master Chorale occasionally interacting and engaging the audience directly—all these boundaries can be broken, but God forbid they include rock ‘n roll or <gasp> country. For a man who fought vehemently against censorship of music (and censorship in general), it’s unsettlingly ironic and warped how his work is being celebrated in honor of Disney Hall’s 10th anniversary and yet it is musically circumcised.

Los Angeles Master Chorale

Why is total respect paid to Cage for “4:38” but not granted to Zappa for “Mystery Roach”? This sort of sidestepping reduced the widely unaware audience of Zappa’s most pervading quality which distinguished him from his contemporaries:  his dexterous, sophisticated mastery of all styles and genres. Zappa wrote, produced, and performed music that could jolt your soul like Zeppelin; tickle your funny-bone with a song as deceptively complex as a Gilbert and Sullivan tune; and simmer your senses in a sound bath comparable to the best program music of classical, neo-classical, and avant-garde composers. This is a man you can point to as having influenced Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park, Book of Mormon), Weird Al Yankovic, The Flaming Lips, George Winston, Thomas Ulrich, Paul McCartney, and many others across different genres and styles of music.


LA Phil performed all the dissonant, Varèse-inspired textures with sublime precision, and the Brechtian-influenced music-hall sounds ambled about in a manner that was delightfully bonkers. But I felt as if the LA Phil was patting itself on the back for both its congruity and coagulated sound as a fearsome 115 member orchestra, spending too much time delivering all of the dissonance and none of the rock. It may have generated more hoots and hollers out of the audience, but it seemed that Salonen and his cohorts felt more comfortable dealing with the peripheral, bizarre aspects of the film’s ideas rather than pulling firmly at the roots of the story’s point: Being over-worked and under-fulfilled can cause you (and others) an ego-trip that reeks of weariness and exhaustion—one which is capable of being a catalyst for self-destruction.

LA PHIL Disney Hall 10th Logo

Instead of a journey through 200 motels across the forty-eight contiguous United States, this performance felt like a trapped existence in one extravagant hotel with 200 rooms so homogenous that it’s difficult to make the distinction between one room and another.

Los Angeles Philharmonic
200 Motels
Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor
Los Angeles Master Chorale
played on October 23, 2013
for future LA Phil events and tickets, call 323.850.2000
or visit http://www.laphil.com

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