The BBC Symphony Orchestra take a deep dive into the eclectic musical worlds of Frank Zappa in a Total Immersion Day celebrating the work of one of the 20th century’s most singular and subversive musicians.

In a career spanning more than 30 years, Frank Zappa made music which fearlessly defied the conventions of genre. This music, drawing on influences as diverse as rock and roll, classical modernism and free improvisation, becomes the focus of a BBCSO Total Immersion Day on Saturday 19 March.

Through film, talks and performance featuring concerts from the BBCSO and the Guildhall School’s Ubu Ensemble, who specialise in avant-garde and experimental music, his extraordinary life and works will be explored for both Zappa enthusiasts and newcomers alike.

One of the highlights of the day will be performances of Zappa’s orchestral masterpieces. Join conductor Brad Lubman and the BBCSO as they delve into the restlessness, contradiction and brilliance of Zappa’s orchestral canon, presenting ground-breaking works such as ‘Pedro’s Dowry’, ‘Mo ‘n Herb’s Vacation’, ‘Sad Jane’ and ‘Bob in Dacron’. With the exception of ‘Strictly Genteel’ and ‘Envelopes’, these are almost certainly the first UK performances of these pieces since Kent Nagano conducted and recorded them with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1983. The concert opens with music by Stravinsky, one of Zappa’s principal musical inspirations. In addition, there will be a Pre-Concert Talk with Zappa expert and author Ben Watson in a Q&A with Radio 3’s Andrew McGregor.

Other events on the day include a screening of Alex Winter’s landmark documentary film, Zappa (2020). As the first full-length documentary about Frank Zappa, the film will provide audiences with an introduction to the musician’s life and legacy. Created over many years, it combines a wealth of rare archival footage with extensive contributions from figures close to Zappa himself.

In addition, this Total Immersion Day will pay homage to Zappa’s iconic last album, The Yellow Shark. Conducted by Simon Wills, Guildhall School Musicians will transport audiences to the 1992 Frankfurt Festival where Zappa collaborated with the German contemporary music orchestra, Ensemble Modern. The concerts that resulted from this partnership have gone down in music history, preserved in recordings on The Yellow Shark and now performed live by the Ubu Ensemble. Classic Zappa scores such as ‘G-Spot Tornado’ and ‘Dog Breath Variations’ will be complemented by pieces from the composer’s beloved Edgard Varèse, Igor Stravinsky and Anton Webern to provide essential context.

Performances from ‘Total Immersion: Frank Zappa’ will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and BBC Sounds. Tickets are available online.


Saturday 19 March

11.00am, Barbican Cinema 1

Film: Zappa (15)

The perfect introduction to Frank Zappa: Alex Winter’s new landmark documentary explores the man, the music and the phenomenon – both on the stage and far from it.

A musician as boundary-defying as Frank Zappa can be hard to get a handle on, so this Total Immersion Day begins with the perfect primer. With extensive contributions from figures close to the musician including his widow Gail, Alex Winter’s 2020 film counters some of the most stubborn Zappa myths and confronts the political turbulence the composer cultivated. It captures Zappa head and heart, and shines new light on his classical compositions.

2.30pm, Milton Court

The Yellow Shark

Guildhall’s Ubu Ensemble pay homage to Frank Zappa’s iconic last album The Yellow Shark, harvested from his appearance at the 1992 Frankfurt Festival.

Following a diagnosis of terminal cancer, in 1991 Zappa agreed to appear as a featured composer at the Frankfurt Festival the next year. What started as a cautious collaboration turned into an inspired one when Zappa started working with the German contemporary music orchestra, Ensemble Modern.  The concerts that followed have gone down in history, thanks in part to The Yellow Shark. The album contains live recordings from the festival in which Zappa’s tongue-in cheek command to his audience to ‘get serious’ rubs shoulders with now-classic Zappa scores including the unmistakable melody of ‘G-Spot Tornado’.

This performance focuses on works that rhapsodize on Zappa’s intense, disciplined interest in classical counterpoint. Music by the composer’s beloved Edgard Varèse, Igor Stravinsky and Anton Webern provide essential context.

7.30pm, Barbican Hall

Zappa Goes Large

For Frank Zappa, the symphony orchestra was the consummate vehicle for musical storytelling. Brad Lubman leads this live streamed evening culminating in Zappa’s acknowledged orchestral masterpieces.

In 1983, Zappa hired the London Symphony Orchestra and recorded 90 minutes of his freest, most imaginative and most wickedly entertaining music. Included on the album was the tear-away invention of ‘Pedro’s Dowry’, a frantic piece that obsesses over repeated fragments with all the primary-coloured brilliance of a cartoon soundtrack. This rampant hyperactivity finds the perfect counterbalance in ‘Sad Jane’, which is presented alongside its companion piece ‘Bob in Dacron’.

‘Mo ‘n Herb’s Vacation’ is one of Zappa’s most accomplished large-scale orchestral works. Within its three-movement, theme and variations structure, beauty and aggression mingle, paradoxically embodying the sort of ‘sophisticated’ musical archetype Zappa loved to mock. The concert opens with music by Igor Stravinsky, one of Zappa’s principal musical inspirations.