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Yes, Frank Zappa Wrote Orchestral Music And It's Live in Miami

Alex Markow Photography
Jacomo Bairos conducts Nu Deco ensemble

Sam Hyken and Jacomo Bairos first got turned on to Frank Zappa not from classic albums like "Weasels Ripped My Flesh" or "Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar," but by playing his orchestral music when they were students at Juilliard (at different times).

Hyken and Bairos met later, at the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, where they played trumpet and tuba, respectively. Juilliard and South Florida were common ground: Bairos grew up in Homestead. Hyken came to Miami as a fellow with New World Symphony. Both felt the pull to come back to the subtropics and decided that Miami needed a chamber orchestra with an eye on the future of orchestral music. 

A $75,000 Knight Arts grant helped them launch Nu Deco ensemble and do their first concert in April 2015. They've done about 20 since.

Hyken and Bairos say it'll be a "dream come true" when the ensemble performs a concert highlighting the orchestral music of Frank Zappa Sunday evening (Jan. 15) at New World Center on Miami Beach. The program also includes a Steve Reich variation on Radiohead, Jessie Montgomery, an area premiere by Fredrik Sixten, and a contemporary variation on Bach, composed by Hyken. 

Listen to or read Zappa fan Alicia Zuckerman's discussion with Hyken and Bairos here:

JB: We were really concerned about what the future of classical music was going to look like. ... You know there's these amazing institutions here in America and around the world, these big orchestras -- the Philadelphias, the Clevelands, the you know the Bostons. These are incredible orchestras, and they're going to always have a place in this very niche genre of music. But there's a lot of orchestras in America, and how are they going to survive? How are they going to be vital to their communities? And we felt like something smaller and nimble would be a little easier to maintain and also could help develop a new model -- music of all kinds of different genres that appeal to people today and speak to society today.

The reality was orchestras lost a little bit of that spark about what new music really is, and we believe in new music, we believe in supporting living composers. But at the same time we understood there needed to be some sort of hook.

"Both of us feel like orchestras around the country should be playing Zappa all the time."

AZ: For the concert on Sunday, one of the centerpieces is actually not a living composer, but also not somebody who a lot of people think of as a classical composer: Frank Zappa.

SH: Yeah, Frank Zappa wrote a lot of orchestral music, and we're so excited to present it because it's traditional concert hall music, but it's genre-bending in itself, and it's quirky and it's funny and it's brilliant. And both of us feel like orchestras around the country should be playing Zappa all the time. I mean it was a dream of ours to present this music.

JB: And also Frank Zappa falls in line to our mission really well because he was a genre-bender himself. He took music from the rock world and crazy different worlds and Eastern worlds and brought it into a sort of quasi-classical setting. It fits the mission of who we are. It feels like it's part of our DNA.  We're always looking for composers who do that. Zappa's sort of the gold standard, and so we felt like this would be like an homage to the ultimate genre-bender.

SH: The majority of the music of Zappa that we're doing on this concert comes from "The Yellow Shark," which is a landmark album that he made in conjunction with Ensemble Moderne, which is in one of Europe's greatest contemporary orchestras.

"We felt like this would be like an homage to the ultimate genre-bender."

AZ: And that was his last album, right? [More have been released posthumously.]

SH: I know he was very sick, in fact he wasn't able to make most of the performances, but he did conduct a couple of the pieces on two of the performances in Frankfurt.

We've created a suite from within "The Yellow Shark," starting with "Dog Breath Variations" and "Uncle Meat", "Outrage at Valdez," which is incredibly beautiful and incredibly difficult. When you open the score and you look at it, it's almost like doing a math problem. It's really crazy music. And then we're finishing with "G-Spot Tornado." And then moving over to an arrangement of "Peaches en Regalia."

AZ: There are some very, very specific requirements for performing Zappa music at all.

SH: Yeah, first it's very expensive just to even get the music over here. It's the most expensive music that we've come across in terms of music rental. They cost about between $2,000 and $3,000 just to get the sheet music here.

"When you open the score and you look at it, it's almost like doing a math problem."

JB: Yeah it's a lot. But you know, when you get the score and you start looking at it, you start to understand it's like having genius on paper.

SH: Some of the actual requirements in playing the music are hilarious. Next to every single piece of Zappa you play they give you a logo of a mustache that has to be next to each piece.

AZ: And the mustache is because of his mustache, the Zappa mustache.

SH: Yes. For his program notes, you can only write "Frank Zappa" and his dates, and the biography is: "American composer." Nothing more nothing less ... That's all we're allowed to put on there and we have to put it on there.

Watch some of Nu Deco's December concert: 

AZ: This concert is a collaboration with the Dranoff Competition?

SH: The Dranoff 2 Piano Foundation runs the Dranoff Piano Competition, which is one of five accredited piano competitions in the whole world. It's for two pianos and the finals are always held in Miami. And for the next round of the competition, which is in December, we will be the competition orchestra.

That's how this started, and then Dranoff was interested in giving the South Florida premiere of this work by Fredrik Sixten, and as part of their season they wanted to do a collaboration with Nu Deco. So a lot of the works that we are performing on this concert do involve two pianos or at least two keyboards. All of the Frank Zappa music has two different keyboards onstage. The Steve Reich piece that we're doing "Radio Rewrite," involves two pianos, and actually the soloists who're playing the Sixten duo, Yoo + Kim -- who won the last competition -- they're going to be playing on not only the Steve Reich, but they're gonna be playing in a little bit of Zappa as well.

AZ: And there's Radiohead involved in this program as well.

Yes. It is Steve Reich's 80th birthday this year, and he came out with a new work not that long ago called "Radio Rewrite," which is based on two songs of Radiohead, "Everything in its Right Place" and "Jigsaw Falling into Place."

You can find out more about Nu Deco's concert on Sunday here.

Alicia Zuckerman is Editorial Director at WLRN, where she edits narrative and investigative audio journalism. In 2020, she was named Editor of the Year by the Society of Professional Journalists Florida chapter.
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