The True Story of the LSO

byDavid Ocker

I think I can shed some light on the LSO recording sessions - I was there atall the recordings and rehearsals (except maybe one string section), I knew themusic very well and performed on one piece. I was standing about 5 feet fromthe trumpet players when they finally did return from lunch and watched the LSOpersonel manager ask one for some change for the payphone so he 'could callsome new trumpet players' - it seemed to be a subtle joke as if to say that hehad noticed which players had screwed up. He certainly didn't say 'You'llnever work in this town again.'

Were the trumpeters late? Yes. Had they been drinking? Probably. Werethey drunk? Not that I could tell. Was their playing worse after lunch? Probably. I'd believe Frank and he thought so.

As far as I know Frank paid the LSO exactly what they asked for includingany overtime payments. I'm confident that union rules were scrupulouslyfollowed. When I learned the base session rate (50 sticks in my mind - but Icould be wrong) I was amazed at how LOW it was. The rates here in L.A. wereover twice that. The LSO was a busy free-lance orchestra - something wasalways happening - the sessions were in January and the orchestra (as a whole)did not have a free day till the following MAY.

Since the Zappa sessions were not a high priority, many of the principalplayers chose to take those weeks off - and there seemed to be many non-regularplayers who had some of the best attitudes (probably they wanted either morework or regular positions in the LSO.)

The orchestra as a whole was unwilling when it came to doing (paid) overtimeThere was one overtime session that I remember - just clarinets and bassoons torecord some of the more fiendish sections of Mo 'n Herb's Vacation, FirstMovement. Some of those players were still unhappy 'cause the overtimewould finish after pub closing, so someone was sent to procure some alcohol tobring back to the session. He returned with two fifths of hard whiskey (for 7guys) and the players happily poured themselves 4oz. portions into paper cups.

Overall the members of the orchestra were very friendly - one bassoonist hadplayed 200 Motels in the RPO and had asked to be on this gig. I'msure that when we Americans were out of earshot they complained long and loudabout how difficult the music was. Of course, they are not paid extra justbecause the music is difficult. And believe me, that music was hard, hard,hard.

Some did the absolute mimimum to get by - others knuckled down and playedtheir parts well (the timpanist blew us away by playing what I thought was avirtually impossible part and he did it on just two kettles.) Given the amountof rehearsal time, I feel that the orchestra did a very creditable job overall,both playing and recording Frank's music. Give much of the credit to KentNagano (who, you'll notice, now works with the LSO regularly).

Was it perfect (i.e. up to Frank's standards and expectations)? No way! Not even close.

But it must be said that the performances could only have improved if theamount of 'elbow bending' had been reduced. By American orchestra standardsthere was a lot of liquor being drunk by the musicians. The Barbican had afull bar backstage just for the orchestra. It was well used. I admit thatthis behavior dumbfounded me. The orchestra played much less well in thesecond half of the concert than on the first. I remember that distinctly. Frank was aghast at all this - he was paying his good money for musicians toperform for him. A guy in the band who abused drugs in that way would havebeen out on his ear before he had finished his last swallow.

Now let me talk about Frank. In my opinion, Frank was a genius of acomposer, an exceptional arranger and a very good orchestrator. There's anintentional descending scale in that sentence. Of course he hired people (likeme) to catch the little mistakes and keep all the details straight - he didn'tmake big mistakes. He knew what he wanted and he knew when something was beingplayed correctly or when it wasn't.

HOWEVER, Frank Zappa did not understand classical musicians' attitudes.

Frank hadn't the foggiest notion of what it was like to show up at asession, take out your instrument, have someone slam a sheet of music in frontof you and be expected to cut it, then be told to do it differently by somecomposer or conductor or other and still not develop a bad attitude.

At best the orchestra was kind of a big rock band to him. At worst it waslike a big synthesizer. Tweak a knob and - presto - the sound changes - butthe knob doesn't complain if it's made to work too hard or develop a 'tude whenthe composer complains about its performance. Live performers do - especiallywhen they got the same pay for playing footballs and background swill the weekbefore. Had Frank not wasted everyone's time by trying to come up with a newseating scheme for the Barbican concert, the performances would likely haveimproved a lot more than had everyone stayed stone sober for 2 weeks.

Frank Zappa mercilessly ridiculed the players of the LSO both in private andpublic. I don't think they deserved that sort of treatment. But when he didit he had his facts right - he just interpreted the facts to support his notionof what was going on. Yes, he was constantly having bad experiences withclassical musicians all through his career - and I'm sure there's always twodiametrically opposed ways of looking at what actually happened: Frank's andthe orchestra's. I'm here to say that the truth was probably somewhere betweenthe two.

Frank's experiences with Ensemble Modern proved that this conflict didn'thave to exist. Pity that the EM sessions happened so late. Someday maybe wecan all imagine whole orchestras of players with the capabilities and positiveattitudes of EM playing Frank's orchestra music - try to visualize 5 differentinterpretations of Pedro's Dowry in the record bins - or a 'noteperfect' version of Sinister Footwear. It won't happen till the managers ofthe orchestras realize that they can sell tickets by playing Zappa. But theZappa fans won't like the music if it's badly played which it will be for along time to come because it's so damn hard

And the performances won't get any better till the players knuckle down andlearn the music and are given enough rehearsal and some conductor digs into thescores and figures out how to make it sound like Frank meant it. And that'seven less likely to happen when there are lots of orchestra players both hereand in Europe telling each other stories about what a downer it is to playZappa orchestra pieces.

But also remember that the Rite of Spring is now routinelyplayed by youth orchestras and all professional orchestras pride themselves ondoing Le Sacre 'note perfect'-ly. Maybe Frank Zappa's music toowill reach that level. We can only hope.

From: (David Ocker)
Subject: Re: LSO - Beerdrinking hooligans YES!
Date: Sun, 20 Nov 1994 11:27:56 GMT

Reproduced with permission from David Ocker. Text editing and HTML by AndyMurkin.

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