Review: ‘John Adams & Kronos Quartet’

Los Angeles Philharmonic celebrates Frank Zappa by presenting a survey of his chamber music

Frank Zappa would give you a sneer and a sarcastic response whenever the word “respectable” was mentioned, but in fact, he did want to be recognized as a serious American composer –  if on his own terms. So he used his rock star notoriety as a way to get his concert music played – and lo, gradually that recognition came, and has only increased since his death in 1993.

Even Zappa’s hometown Los Angeles Philharmonic has finally come around, playing “Dupree’s Paradise” in 2008 and presenting a survey of Zappa’s chamber music as part of its West Coast, Left Coast festival Tuesday night.

Composer/conductor John Adams – a longtime admirer of Zappa’s music – dipped into the last project released during Zappa’s lifetime, “The Yellow Shark,” and chose six selections, or about a third of the album. “The Yellow Shark” is really an anthology of bits and pieces of work from throughout Zappa’s life, and some of the later pieces suggested a new lyrical maturity in Frank’s writing that was cut off by his premature death. #

All six pieces, five of which were arranged by Ali N. Askin, are mind-bendingly difficult to play –  and one can only guess whether the performances by the Philharmonic’s New Music Group would have met Zappa’s stringently exacting standards. To these ears, “Dog Breath Variations/Uncle Meat” sounded unexpectedly muddy in Walt Disney Concert Hall’s razor-sharp acoustics.

“The Girl in the Magnesium Dress” glittered and burbled sensuously, the strings played “Questi Cazzi di Piccione” with furious Webern-accented panache, and pianists Joanne Pearce Martin and Vicki Ray gave a careful, introspective account of “Ruth Is Sleeping.”

“G-Spot Tornado” was beset by messy balances, with the percussion way too far forward, but the two performances –  the second as an encore – had a rowdy, rollicking momentum that swept the hall.

Earlier, the Kronos Quartet presented a radically altered sonic perspective of Harry Partch’s cranky hobo travelogue, “U.S. Highball” (recorded on Nonesuch), than what the composer envisioned. Instead of Partch’s home-grown instruments, Ben Johnston arranged the piece for string quartet, which has the effect of reducing the weirdness factor and drawing Partch closer to the European mainstream that he rejected.

But it does make “Highball” more widely performable – and the Kronos now gathers more steam and drive underneath David Barron’s baritone.

Adams opened the evening by leading a brass sextet and tape of fog horns in Ingram Marshall’s “Fog Tropes,” a wonderfully murky evocation of San Francisco Bay that seemed a bit too crisply defined in this hall.

John Adams & Kronos Quartet

Walt Disney Concert Hall, 2,265 seats, $26-$51


Presented by Los Angeles Philharmonic Association. Performers: Kronos Quartet (David Harrington, John Sherba, Hank Dutt, Jeffrey Ziegler), David Barron, Joanne Pearce Martin, Vicki Ray, Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group conducted by John Adams. Reviewed Dec. 1, 2009.
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