Music Review: A mother of all nights with Zappa's Fathers of Invention
Tuesday 05 May 1998
Cambridge Corn Exchange
The third and final concert in the Britten Sinfonia's "Frank Zappa and the Fathers of Invention" series packed the large hall - the notorious Z-word had worked its magic on a disparate bunch of listeners who seemed neither Mothers of Invention trainspotters nor orchestral groupies.
Zappa material was just one element among many good things in Philip Cashian's intelligent programme of "American composers" - a term stretched to include Igor Stravinsky (a US resident in his later years). The evening began with Conlon Nancarrow's Tango, in a colourful orchestration by the late Yvar Mikhashoff (born Ronald MacKay), followed by the first of several friendly chats by conductor Stefan Asbury. Zappa's Bebop Tango, orchestrated for the Sinfonia by Cashian, was full of crisp details (including notated laughter) and extravagant percussion, with a mock-vaudeville ending.
The delicate details of Get Whitey, one of FZ's more genuinely moving works, were not helped by the Corn Exchange's notorious acoustics, but the players concentrated hard to keep it under control. Next came a real treat. Set for Theater Orchestra, by Charles Ives, was sensuous, chaotic and beguiling in turns, with a heroic performance by pianist Helen Crayford. Asbury was thrilled: "I like those pieces so much that I'll play them again!" They immediately played two of the three pieces a second time, before launching into an equally superb performance of Ives's Gong on the Hook and Ladder. John Cage's delicate Amores for prepared piano and three percussionists completed the first half.
Crayford got the second set off to a fine start with Stravinsky's dynamite Tango (1940), followed by a confident ensemble performance of his 1920s Ragtime. Then came Igor's Boogie, a Zappa miniature, in a bespoke orchestration by Cashian that delighted the audience and played to the Sinfonia's ensemble strengths.
The temperature dropped for a lacklustre performance of Music for a Large Ensemble, by Steve Reich - an odd choice, as Zappa detested minimalism. Reich's music needs a dryer acoustic and the kind of absolute conviction he draws from his own musicians. If the players don't get it, the audience never will.
Audience and orchestra regained concentration for Nancarrow's Study No 6, which made good use of two pianos and the Sinfonia's soloists in another gorgeous Mikhashoff orchestration. These short, spicy charts have attracted criticism - they're a far cry from the astringent studies for player piano Nancarrow wrought during his long Mexico City exile - but they could easily become orchestral favourites.
The grand finale was Zappa's G-Spot Tornado (in the flashy Ensemble Modern version from The Yellow Shark) which suffered from a poor balance. Unfazed, and buoyed by the ecstatic reception, Asbury rallied his troops to do another, better, version, giving both engineers and musicians a chance to fix the mix. Before it started, I heard the genial Germaine Greer, who sits on the Sinfonia's board, explaining the term "G-spot" to a fellow member. She concluded: "But of course ... it doesn't exist!"
Liberated from its electropop origins, Tornado has the making of a concert- hall warhorse - short repeated motifs, rasping brass, thunderous percussion and a chance for each orchestral section to strut its stuff. How long before someone programmes it for the last night of The Proms?
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