Twentieth Century Rocks at LSO St Luke’s: Guildhall Ubu Ensemble play Adams, Boulez, Varèse, and Zappa

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Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa

Twentieth Century Rocks at LSO St Luke’s
LSO St Luke’s, Old Street
Jerwood Hall, March 24th, 2011

John Adams  – Chamber Symphony

Pierre Boulez  – Dérive

Edgard Varèse – Octandre

Frank Zappa –

The Dog Breath Variations/Uncle Meat
The Girl in the Magnesium Dress
The Perfect Stranger
Questi cazzi di piccione
Harry, You’re a Beast/Orange County Lumber Truck
G-spot Tornado

Guildhall Ubu Ensemble
Simon Wills, Ben Gernon conductors


It was the title of the concert that first caught my eye, a pun and a gratuitous film reference joined in unholy wedlock, with no objections raised from my pew. Then I noticed the performers. The Guildhall Ubu Ensemble are apparently no mere youth orchestra composed of Guildhall students, but “the musicians of tomorrow playing the music of our time.” I would condemn the arrogance and dubious accuracy of that statement, were I not too busy praising the superb choice of name and happily envisaging a future where all musicians pretend to be influenced by seminal proto-Surrealist literature.

Also, the music looked pretty good. So it was off to my first time at St Luke’s, the permanent home of the LSO’s “Discovery” music education programme. It’s a converted 18th century church that, once inside, has the atmosphere and appearance of the assembly hall of some well-heeled school — not, in this case, a criticism, as it seems somehow appropriate for the lightly subversive slant of this concert. The programming throws up some interesting relations between the chosen composers, especially in the mischievous pairing of Adams and Boulez, who have been quite disparaging about each other’s work. I’m a big fan of Adams’ unabashed eclecticism and exuberance, and my impression of this performance of his Chamber Symphony was that the Ubus — as I will now refer to them — are too, the string players in particular full of emphatic gestures that showed their immersion in the music. Jointly inspired by cartoon scores and Schoenberg’s piece of the same name, but with the latter influence generally paramount, it’s more violent and menacing than most Adams, though humorous as well. Other than a passage in the last movement for double bass and synthesiser that was not quite tight, it was an assured opening to the concert.

The conductor Simon Wills at this point spoke to the audience, making it clear that the Zappa pieces were in fact the main focus of the concert (only the first and last of the six had been mentioned in the online concert listings), with the rest programmed in relation to him. In the case of Adams, the strongest connection I can see is that they were both East Coast natives who based themselves in California, but the others are easier to divine — Boulez conducted three pieces for a Zappa album in 1984, while Varèse was Zappa’s childhood hero and the biggest influence on his orchestral writing. Due to the logistics of shifting lineups and instrumentation, there was a change in the running order made here, with Varèse’s Octandre, an octet for seven wind instruments and double bass, now closing the first half. By any standards, this is an incredibly stringent work, in three very brief movements, with virtually none of the interplay between instruments associated with traditional chamber music. The performance was aptly austere, and did justice to the revelatory impact a piece like this must have had on a musical scene like 1920s New York (Varèse’s base), still in the process of eagerly ridding itself of Romanticism.

During the interval I pondered the seeming incongruity of the softly-spoken, grey-bearded Wills heading up an Ubu Ensemble and, according to the programme, writing a “terrorism opera” that includes a suicide bombing of the audience; but then for every showman Dalí there is a counterbalancing Magritte to go about the business of subversion more quietly. I was also thinking about the upcoming Boulez piece. Despite the passionate advocacy of an ex-colleague, I’ve never liked Boulez — like John Adams, I find his music bloodless and totally unemotional, with nothing for the ear to latch on to, and am highly suspicious of his constant tinkering with his old scores rather than writing new pieces. To make an analogy in the form of my own unnecessary film reference, no-one applauds George Lucas for re-editing and adding new digital effects to the original Star Wars films, and quite rightly too. So all in all, I was expecting the opening of the second half to be my least favourite part of the evening — which it was, but only relatively. There are actually two Boulez pieces called Dérive, though the programme didn’t mention it; this is the first one, shorter and for only six instruments (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and vibraphone) rather than eleven. Other than the fact that the piece is just about short enough to support its structural idea (variations on six chords), what I liked most about the performance was the clear attention to sensitivities of timbre, which is surely a major factor in the appeal of Boulez’s music, and one that I’m probably more receptive to these days than when I first encountered him during my music degree.

Dérive been conducted by Ben Gernon, a final year Guildhall student, the arrival of the Ubus in their entirety for the showpiece of the evening saw Simon Wills emerge wearing what I’m perhaps inaccurately going to call a kaftan, of the type Zappa frequently wore onstage. Never having heard any of Zappa’s ‘classical’ pieces despite being a fan of his early albums, I had high hopes for this music that were largely met. After the opener, a quite tonal and accessible piece that one could almost imagine being played by The Mothers of Invention, Wills took a few minutes to apologise for the lack of directly relevant information in the programme, due to the restrictions placed on them by the Zappa estate, and relay the very specific and typically zany story lines of the next two items (which neither space nor memory permit me to recount). The Girl in the Magnesium Dress described as ‘Webern meets Boulez’, and it was indeed as dry as that suggests. I liked The Perfect Stranger, with its opening piano and tubular bells doorbell effect, many string glissandi and at one point a megaphone-shaped mute for the tuba, though it was a bit overlong.

Another break followed to allow most of the musicians to depart for the next two chamber-sized pieces, both played in the near right-hand corner of the performing space. ‘Questi cazzi di piccione’ translates as an insult to pigeons, which I wholeheartedly approve of, and is a string quartet piece with lots of pizzicato and slapping of the instruments’ bodies, presumably meant to evoke unspeakable defecation. Harry, You’re a Beast/Orange County Lumber Truck, brass quintet and drums, was counted in by Wills shouting from the audience and ended with the players screaming at the audience, pleasingly anarchic touches despite clearly not coming naturally to these well-behaved students. Finally, G-spot Tornado, with full complement of Ubus, made for an exhilarating end to the programme — the most rock music-like of the pieces, it was also my favourite, with a repeated riff passed around different sections of the ensemble that, when played by different combinations of tuned percussion, was very reminiscent of Steve Reich. There were two encores, repeats of The Dog Breath Variations/Uncle Meat G-spot; a cursory Harry, You’re a Beast have been more in keeping with the spirit of Ubu, but nonetheless I congratulate the Ensemble and Simon Wills for an imaginative programme, delivered with thankfully no greater than necessary levels of professionalism. I await further confrontations with the Ubus with great interest.


Conductor/Composer Simon Wills

Conductor/Composer Simon Wills

About the author

Gabriel Kellett

A music graduate of Roehampton University, London, Gabriel has over the course of the last 18 months worked as a cameraman and editor on a feature film, documentary and music video (, and is currently working on his first short film as writer/director.

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