A Zappa Concert By The NNO

By Emiel F.A.J. Stöpler

A few months ago, I heard of a symphonic concert on November 30, 2017, by the NNO (a Dutch orchestra), with orchestral music by American composer Frank Zappa (1940 – 1993), rock guitarist Steve Vai (1960) and by Frank Zappa’s son, guitarist Dweezil Zappa (1969). Being a great fan of Frank Zappa’s orchestral music, I bought two online concert tickets on the spur of the moment. I wanted to buy the tickets before they might be gone and I thought to myself that I’d probably find someone to go with me.
However, as the concert date approached, I couldn’t find anyone. I’d mailed my brother, who’s also a fan of Frank Zappa’s music, but he didn’t reply. I know he’s busy with a demanding job and his family, so I didn’t want to put too much demand on his time. I asked a few other people, but they either weren’t that interested or couldn’t make it.
So I was debating whether I should go by myself and the night before the concert, I called a friend of mine, Marcel, to tell him about it.
“Dweezil Zappa is a really good musician,” he said. “This is a unique concert, I really think you should go, Emiel.”
I became curious, put aside my worries and decided to go by myself…

On the day of the concert, I took the bus from my village to the train station nearby, which is a 25 minute bus ride. It was already dark when I arrived at the deserted bus stop and I feared the bus driver might not see me in the darkness (there was no lamppost nearby). I got out my cellphone and when I saw the bus approach, I set my cellphone to flashlight-mode and held it out.
Fortunately the bus stopped. I had already imagined the disappointment if it would have passed the bus stop! (And me frantically calling a cab afterward, hoping I’d make it to the train station in time…) When I told the bus driver that I’d feared that he might not see me, he advised to wave the flashlight-cellphone next time around.
“Then I know for sure I need to stop,” he said, and added with a chuckle, “but aside from that, it was a good thing you got out your cellphone.”

Whenever I take the train somewhere, I always stuff my backpack with plenty of books, but when I’m actually underway, I can hardly read with excitement. I tend look at the beautiful scenery outside and let my mind wander in pleasant thoughts.
In the seat next to me, a young man had his tablet opened on a small table, watching some sort of Netflix series. In addition to that, he had his laptop open on his lap, running Excell, while in his hand he held his cellphone, furiously typing messages and sometimes grinning to himself. I looked at the scene with some astonishment, as it seemed to me to be the epitome of being addicted to modern technology.
In the seat diagonally across from me, a woman had a booklet with crossword puzzles on her lap. She stared pensively into the distance and occasionally, she scribbled some letters with her pen.
When we approached Groningen an hour later, the train conductor announced our destination over the intercom. It seemed everyone was startled by the sheer volume of the announcement. The woman across from me laughed and made a remark about the sudden noise. I answered that if one wasn’t already awake, this announcement would certainly have done the trick.
In the rest of the train section, there was also a sudden murmur of voices and muffled laughter.

I arrived at the Oosterpoort (the concert hall in Groningen) well in time. I gave my coat to the cloakroom attendant and went to the foyer, where I waited with a cup of tea until the concert began. As people poured in, I noticed it wasn’t the regular “classical concert audience” I’m used to seeing at the symphony. Usually, when “classical” composers like Mozart, Haydn or Beethoven are being played, the audience is often upper-class, and old and gray. When Stravinsky is on the program, for example, the audience is already more diverse, with younger people wearing jeans in addition to the regular concert goers. This time, however, the crowd was even more diverse than at a Stravinsky concert: both young and old, from all walks of life, some wearing interesting clothing and sporting rather unusual beards (the males anyway) and haircuts.
Here in Holland, we might describe this crowd as somewhat “alternative”.

The concert commenced at quarter past eight. I had a great seat, with an empty chair next to me because of the ticket I couldn’t find anybody for (the seats were numbered). This was just as well, because a couple took the seats next to me and, well… I felt they smelled a bit stale. I moved to the empty seat next to me, leaving a seat between us, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible.
“We don’t bite, you know,” the man said with a smile, when he saw me move.
I tried to laugh it off.
“Yes,” I replied smiling.

I was a bit nervous as the orchestra began the concert by all sections tuning to the oboe. I felt a desperate need to go to the bathroom, silently cursing myself for having just had this big cup of tea in the foyer.
After the orchestra was tuned up, the Dutch radio DJ Co de Kloet announced the pieces. The concert kicked off with two orchestral compositions by Frank Zappa called Bob in Dacron and Sad Jane. These two pieces were recorded by Frank Zappa with the London Symphony Orchestra under the baton of conductor Kent Nagano in the 1980s. I’d listened to that CD over and over again, so I knew the pieces well. They were originally intended as a ballet, but this performance was just the orchestral version.
The nice thing about knowing these compositions is that I knew what to listen for, but as I was obviously about to witness a new performance, there were all sorts of musical surprises for me that weren’t apparent from the album.
And there was another thing: artists say that when you look at a painting, you shouldn’t just look at it from a picture in a magazine or on a screen, but you should go to a museum and see it in real life. Only then will you get a sensation of the true splendor of the artwork.
This concert was something similar, because hearing Zappa’s music performed live as opposed to hearing it over speakers or headphones, made a difference of day and night. The sound of a live orchestra is so beautiful and for a moment I actually had something of a pleasurable visceral sensation where I could feel with my body all the interesting orchestral textures.
I soon forgot I had to pee and all my other worries and discomfort. Instead I gradually relaxed and enjoyed the concert.

After Zappa, there was an orchestral piece by heavy metal guitar virtuoso Steve Vai. The title, announced by Co de Kloet as being There’s Still Something Dead in Here, struck me as a bit odd and I didn’t know what to expect. Vai’s musical vocabulary seemed in this case very much inspired on the work of Frank Zappa. The piece went through various degrees of dissonance, sometimes with a great deal of noise and percussion, at other times more melodic, and ended abruptly (and unexpectedly) with a magnificently grand and consonant orchestral chord. I imagined the piece as a programmatic composition, telling a story of a person who might go through various phases of turmoil in order to reach a state of Nirvana in the end, but that was just my own interpretation.

And then, of course, Dweezil Zappa played his guitar together with the orchestra. Orchestrator and bass player Kurt Morgan, as well as orchestrator Tom Trapp, had made some arrangements of Dweezil’s music, one of them bearing the humorous title Shampoohorn. The arrangements were well executed, but I wondered if there could have been a bit more variety in orchestral textures, especially as Dweezils guitar part was often playing along with the other melody instruments from the orchestra.
When Dweezil finished playing one of the pieces, he said a few words to the audience and became a little emotional. I wondered why exactly, as it seemed a little incongruous to me. He expressed his gratitude for the opportunity of this music being played and thanked the orchestra and the audience profusely. (Well, thank you too, Dweezil, for this incredible concert!)
Among other pieces, there followed an interlude with just guitar, bass, drums and keyboards (the orchestra being silent), where Dweezil Zappa played his father’s guitar tune Watermelon in Easter Hay. He really nailed the solo, where the melodic material was clearly inspired on his father’s guitar artistry.

There was also the premiere of an orchestral composition by Dweezil called The Adventures of Dindoo, a title inspired on a drawing his daughter had made. The music often sounded cinematic. It was full of interesting textures and beautiful melodic material that was also present in Frank Zappa’s and Steve Vai’s pieces. There was so much going on musically, that I felt I might want to hear again sometime. (Unfortunately, I can’t find the podcast of this concert anymore.)

A piece that was a thrill to hear live, was Frank Zappa’s orchestral work called Strictly Genteel. It is also featured on the orchestral album I mentioned earlier, with the London Symphony Orchestra under Kent Nagano, and to hear that live was just an astonishing experience.

When the concert was finished, the audience gave a standing ovation. Dweezil Zappa announced through the PA they might come to the foyer to talk to a few people, but I decided to catch the train home. And anyway, when I left, the foyer was packed with people.
The return trip felt a little magic. My train section was nearly empty and it was quiet. I saw a girl a few seats away, silently hovering over the glowing screen of her cellphone. It was dark outside and besides my own reflection in the window next to me, I saw occasional lights from lampposts and cars in various colors passing by outside.
When I got home, I felt a glow of happiness. I was so glad I had gone to see this event! My friend Marcel had said on the phone, when I called him the night before, that he’d be interested to know how the concert was. I couldn’t wait to call him and tell him about it.

Here’s a Dutch review in a national newspaper of the same concert, but in a different city: https://www.volkskrant.nl/cultuur-media/soms-overstemmen-violen-het-liefdevolle-spel-van-dweezil-zappa~b5e4ca14/