According to Zappa's own words, after performing his way through countless renditions of Dinah Moe Humm and Titties and Beer, he finally had enough money to hire the London Symphony Orchestra to play some of his "serious" music. The problem was that the LSO didn't really take Zappa seriously, expecting to cake walk their way through music composed by a rock musician. So they ended up being confronted with scores that were more complex than expected, and limited time to try to learn the music. On top of that, Zappa claims that some orchestra members even went out and visited a nearby pub between sessions (although I've read that orchestra insiders deny that ever happened). The album's liner notes mention that it took more than 50 edits to get the seven minute Strictly Genteel to sound good, and also say that the music is "infested with wrong notes and out-of-tune passages".
Still, the results are pretty amazing. This music was originally released on two separate albums, which have been brought together and reorganized for the CD release. The music is almost entirely orchestral, with the addition of an occasional rock drum kit for most pieces (probably to keep the rock and roll fans interested - I know it works for me to some degree). To be honest, a lot of this album goes right over my head - I'm definitely not the best equipped person to be reviewing it. So, I'll state that the album in general is a good collection of Zappa-penned modern classical music, and then throw in some personal observations and opinions.
Bob in Dacron and Sad Jane have never really thrilled me all that much, although I do like the off-kilter piano part at the beginning of Jane.
Mo 'N Herb's Vacation includes variations on a melody (the one right at the beginning of the piece) that may sound familiar - it's the one that plays under the line "I know you want someone to show you some tit!" in the song Wet T-shirt Nite on Joe's Garage. Who would have thought that that would turn up on an orchestral album?
As mentioned in the Ship Arriving Too Late... review, this version of Envelopes makes it easier to tell where Drowning Witch ends and this song begins. The version on the LSO album is taken as a more leisurely pace.
The disco beat a the end of Pedro's Dowry is a little unexpected, but I've got to admit that that's probably my favorite part of the song. The orchestra and percussion are doing some very weird and wonderful things under that beat.
This version of Bogus Pomp is almost twice as long as the Orchestral Favorites version. The liner notes say that this piece is a parody of movie music clichés and mannerisms. The material started out being written for a 1968 Mothers concert where they were joined by the BBC symphony (I believe this is the concert featured on the Ahead of Their Time album). From there, the music was furthered developed and parts were used in the 200 Motels movie. With still more development, the first version to use the name Bogus Pomp appeared on Orchestral Favorites, and with yet more development it finally reached its grand conclusion with the 24 and a half minute version here. One neat addition is a staged outburst near the end by a cellist who is upset that the viola is getting all the good parts.
The closing Strictly Genteel is my favorite version of that song, even though Zappa said that the brass section was way out of tune. Frank rarely went for a big, sweeping, stereotypically symphonic sound, but on this track he did. And the result is fantastic. Just a beautiful performance of a beautiful song.
As you might have noticed from my notes, I like disc two of this set more than disc one. In fact, my copy of disc one has a big scratch on it that makes the last track skip for a couple minutes, yet I've never been motivated to replace it. (To give some impression of how far over my head a lof of this music goes - the skip caused a 10-second or so stretch of Mo 'n Herb to go into an infinite loop, and the first time I heard it that way it played for a good couple minutes before I realized that something was wrong.) I often see people in alt.fan.frank-zappa praising the tracks from disc one, so my guess is that they're just beyond my current musical appreciation abilities.
This was the only time that FZ ever got his "serious" music played by a full scale, world class orchestra, so if you like that sort of thing then this album definitely belongs in your collection.