One day in 1981 or 1982 Jean-Louis LeRoux, the conductor of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, and Marcella DeCray, the group's harpist and administrator, and I, the Associate Conductor, had a meeting that included a discussion of fundraising ideas. In a moment of creative misunderstanding, incorrectly believing that Frank Zappa, well-known as a fan of the composer Edgar Varese, had begun conducting Varese's music in Classical concert venues, I suggested we hire Zappa to conduct Varese during the founding Modernist's upcoming Centennial. (It turned out that Zappa had only once helped to produce a Varese concert, and had never conducted in public. It's a good thing I had the facts wrong, or I would never have suggested Zappa conduct.)
Jean-Louis thought it was a good idea and said to me "You write the letter inviting him, and I'll find out where to send it." So I wrote the letter inviting Frank Zappa to conduct Classical music.
Frank accepted, and was wonderful to work with. One of the most sober and serious minds I had met up to that time, he coached in conducting with Jean-Louis and was thoroughly prepared to conduct the Varese Ionization and Offrandes. I coached the soprano Judith Cline on the Offrandes, and wrote the program notes. Frank also contributed an essay to the notes.
Zappa was marvelously diplomatic in rehearsal. The first rehearsal of the Ionization was in the Ballet Room at the Opera House. The best percussionists in the Bay Area were in that group. At one point, someone kept making the same slight error in a group of three sixteenth notes, at a place where the error could affect others. Frank caught the error but though persistent in getting it right was very artfully oblique about who was at fault. Not blaming anyone, he told the player something to the effect "Please play the second note sooner." The player then got it right and the rehearsal moved forward with no loss of intensity or good will.
Grace Slick was Mistress of Ceremonies, and gave a short talk at the beginning of each half of the program. She was there with the Jefferson Airplane bassist Paul Kantner. At a loss for how to tell him I liked his bass playing, I said "I like your work." He replied "It isn't work."
The concert was a tremendous success and was the group's first fundraiser with a noticeable profit from actual ticket sales.
It was one of the first events sponsored by the clothes store called the Gap. During intermission I cruised the halls to get a feeling for the audience's experience of the event. The place was electrified as it seldom gets. I thought the gap was closed between audience enjoyment and the knowledge so wrongly believed to be required of anyone to "appreciate" Contemporary music when I heard one member of the audience say to another, obviously speaking about Ionization, "I loved the rhythm piece."
Zappa went on to write a number of interesting compositions in a more "concert music" style than his Rock-n-Roll, which was of course never uninteresting either, and regularly participated in Classical venues for the rest of his life.
The Futurist statement on the cover
seemed to me to capture the spirit of the event, and its historical context, admirably well.