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It’s difficult to pigeonhole the talents of Frank Zappa
(1940-1993), the brilliant, iconoclastic musician and composer.
Although primarily known for his works since the mid 1960’s
with “The Mothers of Invention,” he has embraced a variety
of musical genres. As a rule, he wrote for groups of musicians
reminiscent of standard Rock/Pop ensembles, and often
included auxiliary players on various percussion instruments.
Zappa was also a highly skilled guitarist and would often
contribute vocals to these tunes, which were witty, astute
commentaries on various aspects of society and life in general.

There were no “rules” or “templates” for Zappa’s music, and
you never knew what to expect. One thing for certain was
that the extremely complex nature of the pieces demanded a
quality of musicianship from players and singers that was well
above the norm. Over the years, Zappa’s “workshop”
attracted a veritable “Who’s Who” of major talent. This was
necessary, due to the demands these pieces placed upon the
players and singers. I don’t think Zappa cared less about
commercial appeal. In fact, much of his recorded music has
yet to see the light of day.

With the exception of the cognoscenti, the extent of Zappa’s
interest in Classical music wasn’t well known. In particular,
he embraced avant-garde Classical music, favoring the works
of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and Edgard Varèse
(1883-1965). Naturally, when I came across
“Zappa: The London Symphony Orchestra, Volumes I and II,”
I jumped at the chance to hear it. Despite my awareness of
his orchestral music, this was my first listening opportunity.

Recorded in January 1983 and conducted by Kent Nagano
(1951 – ), the seven works on these two CDs were originally
released on LPs during 1983 and 1987, respectively. Pieces
such as “Pedro’s Dowry,” “Envelopes” and “Bogus Pop” had
previously been recorded and released using smaller ensembles.
According to the liner notes written by Zappa, “Sad Jane,”
“Mo ‘n Herb’s Vacation,” “Envelopes,” and “Pedro’s Dowry”
were featured on the Volume One disc, while “Bogus Pomp,”
“Bob in Dacron” and “Strictly Genteel” were on Volume Two.
For some reason, the pieces were in a different order on
these two discs.

At any rate, the two-movement “Bob in Dacron,” and
“Sad Jane,” as well as the three-movement
“Mo ‘n Herb’s Vacation” are in a decidedly “post-Schönbergian,”
avant-garde idiom. It wasn’t a problem for me, because I’ve
heard quite a bit of this type of music, and I found it to be
well written. Like so much of Zappa’s music, the humor
and whimsy were often evident. For me, it was reminiscent of
film and television music from the 1950’s and 1960’s. While
still in a modern idiom, “Bogus Pop” and “Strictly Genteel”
were more recognizable to me as Frank Zappa compositions,
having heard several of his “non Classical” albums. These pieces
and his liner notes were quite interesting and thoroughly imbued
with his sardonic wit.

Considering the scant amount of rehearsal time and budgetary
constraints imposed upon the London Symphony Orchestra,
their performances were quite admirable, given the complexity
of the music. It’s not cheap to hire one of the world’s leading
orchestras, and Zappa was clearly frustrated with the end
result. Although the running time was a mere 6:56, apparently
“Strictly Genteel” required more than 50 edits! While these
drawbacks weren’t that obvious to me, I’d still have liked to
have heard the works performed to Zappa’s satisfaction.
As they are, I can nevertheless recommend this set for what
it offers; namely, another look into Frank Zappa’s ever
creative mind. Kudos too, to Maestro Nagano, for his valiant
effort on the podium.