Does Humour Belong at the Symphony?

The ESO plays Zappa

Tuesday night was a good one for fans of Frank Zappa as the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra joined Ed Mann and Ike Willis in a tribute to the late composer and musician in a surprisingly full Winspear Centre. For fans (like me) the show not only delivered on inappropriately high expectations, but exceeded them.

For the musicians playing, I’m sure it was just as memorable. Almost every member of the Orchestra was dressed in some kind of kooky or eccentric costume — everything from lime green leggings to Viking helmets. It looked more like Halloween than a serious performance but once the music started there was no doubt as to the legitimacy of Zappa’s work.

Procol Harum may have made the record of note with the ESO but this was certainly a whole different animal. The opening song “Peaches En Regalia” immediately revealed how pedestrian “Conquistador” really is when compared to a serious piece of music. You can have all the sweeping strings and kettle drums you want; you still need something with some balls to showcase the intensely high level of musicianship that the ESO boasts.

The songs they chose to play over the two-hour show unquestionably did show off the talent of ESO. Songs that spanned from early “Mothers of Invention” to the terrifying “Jazz from Hell” and highlights from everything in between. The songs they played held true to the originals while offering truly new and interesting arrangements. Deep cuts from “Joe’s Garage” and some of the best from “Apostrophe/Overnight Sensation” sounded like they were built for a crack symphony because...well, they were.

ESO music director Bill Eddins played the part of the “central scrutinizer” conducting the band and offering some narration through a bullhorn, spending most of the show in an oversized purple-feathered hat. He and guest guitarist/vocalist Ike Willis seemed to have great chemistry and they spent the whole show laughing with each other. In fact, my only complaint with the performance was that it felt to go too far in trying to show the audience how funny the music inherently is. Frank Zappa believed more than anyone in a sense of humour when it came to music but he built it in to the songs. Just the arrangements themselves are hilarious as you watch a poor xylophone player try to wrangle four mallets to play a melody line about deadly yellow snow. You don’t need to put the Marx Brothers in clown makeup to understand that they are funny and in a way I felt like the ESO was beating me over the head with an inflatable mallet. Distracting shenanigans aside, the music was all there.

Unlike literally everything you will hear on the radio for the foreseeable future, Zappa was-a-once-in-a-hundred-year talent as a composer and wrote music that was structurally capable of supporting and pushing classically trained musicians. This isn’t throwing some violin over a pop song to pull at your heartstrings or self-indulgent improvisational jazz; this is dynamic and challenging modern classical music built for symphonic arrangement. It is also very weird and an admittedly acquired taste, like cilantro. Those who like it like it a lot, the people that don’t may never understand how fresh and delicious that green flavour-leaf is.

Case and point was the couple sitting a few rows away from me. The gorgeous blonde was having the time of her life; dancing in her seat, singing along and screaming praise at the end of every weird song. The appropriately handsome boyfriend on the other hand looked like he was watching a foreign film with no subtitles. I felt bad for the both of them; he looked like what I think I would look like if I had to sit through two hours of a Katy Perry concert or any Nicolas Cage movie ever again and she looked like a tired mom trying to force culture down the throat of a disinterested 14 year old. His jacket was on before the end of the second act and they skipped the encore. More cilantro for those who want it I suppose.



more in Music Review     |     posted Mar 16th, 2011 at 4:28pm     

Comments: 4

stina wrote:

reading this article literally made me cry with joy because the written word stays alive in the pen of this beautiful and precious man, nathan usher. it was as if i was sitting right the along side you...

on Mar 17th, 2011 at 3:10pm Report Abuse

Ed Defy wrote:

Whew, I liked the article too, but not as much as Nathan's girlfriend . . .

on Mar 17th, 2011 at 5:44pm Report Abuse

Ed Defy wrote:

oh yeah, Bill Evans is a dead jazz pianist; Bill Eddins is a living symphony conductor . . .

on Mar 17th, 2011 at 5:51pm Report Abuse

curtistwright wrote:

Woopsie. That's been fixed.

on Mar 18th, 2011 at 11:57am Report Abuse

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