On October 23rd, 2013, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles saw an event that I doubt Walt himself would have enjoyed much. The LA Philharmonic and Master Chorale under conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen put on a one-time-only performance of the orchestral and operatic portions of 200 Motels, working from Frank Zappa's original scores. Fortunately for Zappa fans who couldn't be there, the event was professionally recorded and has been released as a two CD set.
On the down side, the show lacks the rock songs from the original movie and album - there's no Mystery Roach, no Lonesome Cowboy Burt, no Magic Fingers, etc. And while it may just take some getting used to new voices, I can't shake the feeling that some of the vocalists just didn't really know how to put the "eyebrows" on the lyrics.
But this is still an essential recording for Zappa fans because not only do we get to hear some music that Zappa originally composed for 200 Motels but couldn't get into the movie or album due to budget problems, but we also get the benefit of professional recording gear from 2013, so this album sounds substantially better than the original film soundtrack album. It's curiously low volume for the most part (I had to keep turning it up until the Strictly Genteel finale almost deafened me), and some of the vocals and other elements occasionally sound a bit distant, but they mention in the liner notes that it was the best they could do for a one-off performance that featured vocalists roaming around the stage. Speaking of those liner notes, they're very generous by the standards of this new digital download age - there are remembrances of the show penned by no less than ten people from the perspectives of both performers and audience members, and there are lots of photos that show off the impressive production values.
Which begs the question - after putting that much effort into having the score professionally copied, rehearsing an orchestra and chorus, building a set, making costumes, hiring vocalists and actors, bringing in Zappa band alumni to play...why did they only perform the show once? And why wasn't it recorded on video? Seems like kind of a waste.
Oh well, at least we have the audio recording. It'll probably take several more listens before I really start to absorb it, but I've already noticed that the 21 minute piece The Pleated Gazelle sheds a lot of light on those those baffling tracks from side 4 of the original soundtrack (you know, the stuff about the lad searching the night for his newts and the girl making him some broth). And despite this being a fairly highbrow affair, they didn't pull any punches on the sex stuff. It's almost worth the price of admission just to hear a large, professional chorus in a theater named after Disney singing about penises. The Interview section (here called What's The Name Of Your Group) goes on a little too long (OK, way too long), but hearing the Sealed Tuna Sandwich suite with great sound quality makes up for that.
I'm not the world's biggest Flo and Eddie fan, but I kind of miss them here. And whenever the performance skips over something from the original album, it definitely feels like something is missing. But all in all I'm glad this was released. Out of the pile of CDs I recently ordered on Amazon, this is the one I keep getting the urge to listen to.