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Zappa’s ‘200 Motels’ Is Readied for Its Close-up

Quirky, avant-garde rocker's work to mark Disney Hall's 10th anniversary

The history of Frank Zappa’s “200 Motels” is much like its composer; enigmatic and riddled with disparate dimensions. Originally culled from various musical scribblings written while on tour, and later, converted into a multimedia, surrealist rock symphony for film and stage, the legacy of “200 Motels” has largely stemmed from its cinematic and recorded incarnations. The 1971 film version is a bizarre, hallucinatory slab of cult kitsch, while its double-LP soundtrack exists more as a kaleidoscopic curio than a full-fledged album statement.

The subject matter is typical Zappa: odd, irreverent, and bitingly funny, chronicling his band’s descent into a state of collective madness while on the road. A partial-reading by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1970 and an infamously banned 1971 performance at the Royal Albert Hall represent the only attempts to present the work as an orchestrated whole — until now.

With the work’s fragmented past firmly in mind, the L.A. Phil — in honor of the Walt Disney Concert Hall’s 10th anniversary — has decided to perform “200 Motels” in its entirety for the first time on Oct. 23. Director James Darrah has brought a fresh sensibility to the production, adding a team of designers to build sets and projection surfaces for an immersive blend of music and visuals. “It’s going to look like a combination of a film set, an art installation, an opera set, a video installation and a theater piece,” Darrah says. “The entire piece functions as this great creative outpouring from Frank, and he actually treats the visual component as though he were writing for another instrument.”

Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen will be working from a newly revised version of the original score — comprising 13 orchestral suites including a truly bizarre mixture of obtuse modernism, orchestral pop, nonsensical humor, cultural commentary and kitschy rock exotica with some bracing vocal arrangements thrown in.

Salonen briefly met Zappa not long before he died in 1993 and conducted a number of his works in Europe before then. In speaking with Zappa, he observed an artist who was keenly self-aware yet far more sensitive than his iconoclastic reputation belied. Removed from its original context, Salonen sees “200 Motels” as a work of surprising depth and complexity — trading its confrontational elements for a statement of pure imagination and creative freedom.

“I would say that the outrageous aspects of Zappa are perhaps less important for today’s audience,” Salonen says. “We’re witnessing a historical moment where we can actually hear the other aspects of his music better because we are no longer stunned by the outrageousness. Reading this score now, there is a sheer richness of fantasy. He had such a vivid imagination in every way.”

Though the L.A. Phil’s production will employ some newly devised elements, the primary concern of Zappa’s widow, Gail, is in presenting a version that is faithful to Frank’s original musical vision. “I’m extremely hands on,” says Gail Zappa, executor of the Zappa estate. “My job is to protect the intent of the composer and serve the integrity of the music.”

With the careful transcription and assembly efforts of Zappa Family Trust scoremeister Kurt Morgan, Zappa helped deliver the comprehensive score that will be used for the upcoming performance.

The L.A. Phil’s premiere will be followed by a second reading of “200 Motels” by the BBC Concert Orchestra Oct. 29 at London’s Royal Festival Hall.

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