When the Barbican last paid tribute to his orchestral music, in 1983, Frank Zappa declared it a disaster. He hated the venue’s acoustics, demanded that the orchestra be rigorously split up to assist the mixing process, criticised conductor Kent Nagano, accused the London Symphony Orchestra’s members of being drunk, and claimed they made hundreds of errors. And that was a performance that received a 20-minute standing ovation, which suggests that the notoriously perfectionist Zappa might have been his own worst critic.
We often view rock stars who dabble in the classical world in the same way we might a dog walking on its hind legs, but Zappa was composing for orchestras long before he made rock albums. As well as containing plenty of sly references to his 20th-century modernist heroes, Zappa’s densely written scores often sound like a dozen different film soundtracks playing concurrently: Carl Stalling’s chaotic cartoon scores set alongside slurring Bollywood violins; Psycho strings mixed with Gershwin-style romanticism; spooky spy-movie woodwind versus thunderous car-chase percussion.
This all-day celebration started with a screening of Alex Winter’s excellent 2020 Zappa documentary and featured a Q&A with Zappa biographer Ben Watson (punctuated by a suitably Dada-esque supporting cast of musicians on rattles, bells and typewriters, planted among the audience). It concluded with an evening show at the Barbican Hall featuring 90 members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra: this Mahler-sized ensemble required an enlarged stage that subsumed the auditorium’s first six rows of seats, and its sheer size enabled it to lurch from pianissimo to deafening, percussion-heavy fortissimo. This suited works like Pedro’s Dowry and Bob In Dacron, where short themes develop as they are thrown from one part of the orchestra to another (only the final piece, the 6/8 ballad Strictly Genteel, moved into dreary classical rock bombast).
But the highlight of the day might have been the afternoon concert at the smaller Milton Court, where young Guildhall students in the Ubu Ensemble worked through excerpts from Zappa’s last orchestral work, The Yellow Shark, from 1993. Even alongside some intriguing obscurities by his idols Stravinsky, Webern and Varèse, Zappa’s witty, impressionistic, jazz-flecked miniatures more than held their own.