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Tuesday, 18 March 2014 22:25

Concert review: Bugs is back and as funny as ever with the St. Louis Symphony Saturday and Sunday, March 15 and 16 + Video

Waiting for Bugs and friends at Powell hall Waiting for Bugs and friends at Powell hall
Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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A bit of Rhapsody Rabbit

What's the first piece of "classical" music you ever heard? In my case it was Franz von Suppé’s "Poet and Peasant" overture. I heard it, not in concert or over the radio or on an LP (a primitive sound reproduction device invented by the ancient Mayans), but as the soundtrack for a cartoon. I have long forgotten the actual content of the cartoon (I think it might have involved elves), but the music is there to stay.

This past weekend guest conductor George Daugherty and the St. Louis Symphony offered an opportunity to go "forward into the past," to quote the Firesign Theatre (another major influence on my youth). Created by Mr. Daugherty as a sequel to “Bugs Bunny at the Symphony” (which played Powell back in the fall of 2011), "Bugs Bunny at the Symphony II" featured a solid collection of digitally remastered Warner Brothers cartoons (mostly from the 40s and 50s) along with a couple of "Tom and Jerry" shorts from MGM and even two brand-new CGI 'toons that added a three dimensional solidity to the usual fast-paced slapstick.

Most of the cartoons were complete, a few were cut to remove the non-musical parts, and the whole program was good, family-friendly fun, with enough variety to keep both the kids and us aging Boomers entertained. At a little over two hours with intermission, however, it might have been a bit long for some of the younger audience members.

As Mr. Daugherty (who tours with this program world wide) said in his opening remarks, the Warner team produced around 1500 cartoons during the golden years of hand-drawn animation in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. They were intended for general audiences (not just kids) and were part of the run-up to the feature film that included previews, short subjects, and newsreels. They all had non-stop soundtracks that mixed themes from the classics with period pop songs and original material. Those arrangements, including most of the original tunes, were the work of the remarkable Carl Stalling, a Missouri native son who was once the resident organist at the old St. Louis Theatre—which is now Powell Hall.

Showing these cartoons with a live orchestra is a technically complex business that involves mixing the live orchestral performance with recorded music and sound on the cartoon soundtracks. All the orchestra members wore headphones, as did Mr. Daugherty, and everything had to be precisely coordinated with what was on film. I wish I'd had a seating chart so I could compliment some of the musicians who played when we saw the show on Sunday. They performed flawlessly, including whoever had to do the short electric slide guitar sting that opens the famous "Merrie Melodies Theme" (officially "Merrily We Roll Along" from 1935).

Like its predecessor, "Bugs II" features some of Warner's most hilarious classical parodies, including “The Rabbit of Seville” (set largely to bits of Rossini’s overture), “Baton Bunny” (which sends up von Suppé’s "Morning, Noon, and Night in Vienna" overture), and, of course, “What’s Opera, Doc?,” which uses music from six separate Wagner operas to lampoon the histrionic excesses sometimes associated with those operas. This time we also got "Rhapsody Rabbit," with Bugs as a concert pianist taking on Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2" with the unwelcome help of a musical mouse (a gag that was ripped off shamelessly by MGM for "Cat Concerto," with Tom playing Bugs).

The first of the two brand-new cartoons, by the way, uses as its soundtrack a remastered version of Mel Blanc's recording of the Alan Livingston / Billy May / Warren Foster song "I Tawt I Taw a Puddy Tat." Blanc voiced both Tweety Pie and Sylvester, of course, with June Foray (best known as the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel and Natasha Fatal) making a brief appearance as Tweety and Sylvester's little old lady owner. The recording was believed lost for around sixty years, only to turn up in the drawer of an ancient desk. That's Mr. Daugherty's story, anyway, and I'm buying it.

So, like it's predecessor, George Daugherty’s “Bugs Bunny at the Symphony II” was a cleverly conceived and smartly executed tribute to the endless inventiveness of animation directors such as Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, and (for the two new entries) Matthew O'Callaghan, as well as the ingenuity of Carl Stalling and his stalwart assistant and sometime pianist, Milt Franklyn. A splendid time was clearly had by all (including the nine year old in our party and his mom), and if events like this can open the eyes and ears of the younger set to the job of live music, I’m all for them. Certainly the packed house at Powell noticeably less gray than it usually is, so it would be nice to see some of them back for the regular season concerts.

Speaking of which: the regular concert season resumes at Powell Hall this weekend as David Robertson conducts orchestra and violin soloist Gil Shaham in Marshall's "Bright Kingdoms," Korngold's "Violin Concerto," and Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 ("From the New World") on Friday at 10:30 AM and at 8 PM, and Saturday at 8 PM March 21 and 22. For more information: slso.org.

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