Opera + Classical Music Reviews

200 Motels @ Royal Festival Hall, London

29 October 2013

Southbank Centre

Royal Festival Hall (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

“Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.” – Frank Zappa

As part of the ‘The Rest is Noise‘ festival, the Southbank Centre deviated from the norm by staging the UK premiere of Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels.

Originally written and produced as a film in 1971, Zappa’s fusion of classical, chorale, rock and roll, country, jazz, and 50s doo-wop was scheduled to play the Royal Albert Hall that same year. However, the ‘powers that be’, or were at the time, thought that some of the lyrics and satire expressed in this work were obscene and promptly banned the concert. Decades later, Zappa’s widow, Gail, together with other family members put together a mainly orchestral version, still respecting the original, that first played in Los Angeles and now London.

One of Zappa’s first musical influences was classical. He was often quoted as citing Edgard Varèse and Igor Stravinsky as major influences on his musical development. Though remembered mainly for his outrageous satirical rock music, it is no surprise that his family thought a fitting tribute would be a staging of one of his first truly orchestral works. Ranging from the wonderfully melodic to atonal, this was no mean feat.

200 Motels – Life on the Road was inspired by the experiences Zappa and his band had on tours around the world. Politics, sex, religion, music criticism and conformity are ruthlessly lampooned. Some of this satire is now a little dated and juvenile, but it should be remembered that an establishment at the time felt sufficiently threatened to ban this work.

The performance by the BBC Concert Orchestra, backed by the Southbank Sinfonia and the London Voices accurately recreated the original piece whilst giving it a new energy that transcended the film and subsequent double album. Orchestra and choral members stayed true to the composer’s vision as they were required to cough, jump around and wave lighted sex toys at various parts of the piece. Conductor Jurjen Hempel and Chorus Master Matthew Morley were in complete control and brought clarity and purpose to a very difficult score.

Claron McFadden was superb as various female characters and delivered moving renditions of some very difficult lyrics. Ian Shaw and Brendan Reilly were totally convincing as ‘Flo and Eddie’. Richard Strange was as good a narrator as Theodore Bikel in the original, whilst Tony Guilfoyle played Mr Zappa with aplomb. It was almost as if Frank himself was there. A more fitting tribute to one of the most remarkable figures of the 20th Century cannot be imagined.

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200 Motels @ Royal Festival Hall, London