New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) rang in 2015 in high style the first weekend of the year with the highly acclaimed “Bugs Bunny at the Symphony II.” conducted by the deliciously diverse and ragingly talented George Daughtery who is also a co-creator of the work.
Imagine seeing familiar Bugs Bunny cartoons in their natural environment–a movie theater! Now take it further – the orchestra playing the music that animates the animation is LIVE and played by favorite members of NJSO! I attended the performance on the afternoon of January 4 at New Brunswick’s State Theatre.
The State Theatre in New Brunswick originally opened in 1921 as a venue both for movies and live performances. Daughterty’s knowledge of his topics is encyclopedic and he is as enthusiastic as he is informed, taking us with him in his vivid description of how the shorts made by Warner Brothers to be shown immediately prior to their films took on a life of their own. From their first appearance in the 1930s through to the 1960s, when movie houses stopped showing animated shorts, more than 2000 were created and none were repeated. Consider what it took in pre-CGI days to generate the thousands of drawings that were then filmed. And as for composers like Carl Stalling and his collaborator and later, successor, Milt Franklyn, they took their love of classical music and shared it in the most subtle and dazzling ways. Scoring action, humor and wit with their favorites, the result is pure genius.
There were 15 animations featured–some in their entirety, and some as collections of scenes. The “overture” was the very apt piece from Smetana’s “Bartered Bride,” “The Dance of the Comedians.” Daugherty shared with us early on that this delightful piece is the “chase” music for every single Road Runner and Coyote cartoon! He also opined that for many in the orchestra as well as most of us in the audience, our first introduction to classical music was via this medium. I can only tell you that from the opening notes, I was as smitten as Pepe Le Pew and grinning from ear to ear for the entire afternoon, especially afterward!
Seeing my favorite orchestra playing to these animations, when my three absolute favorites were featured, was a most amazing way to start 2015! Seeing how the animations themselves have changed, the subtle ways that Bugs and Elmer Fudd and Daffy have moved with the times was as interesting as seeing pictures of our grandparents when they were younger. But seeing those full sized animations with a full orchestra is something we’ll long remember.
“Baton Bunny” and “Rhapsody Rabbit” demonstrated Bugs’ conducting skills, while “Johann Mouse” and “Tom and Jerry in the Hollywood Bowl” ably showed that all cartoon anthropomorphic characters have more skills than a Swiss Army knife. One bit in “Rhapsody Rabbit” that may have been lost on the Millennials is the one where Bugs is playing and the keyboard moves like the carriage of a typewriter. Word processors have been around so long that the depth of that bit of humor may have been lost. That said, music is universal, as is Murphy’s law, ably demonstrated in “Zoom” and “Bored” with Wiley Coyote and fast-feathered friend, the Road Runner.
The ending of Act 1 was one of my favorites, “The Rabbit of Seville”. Opera lovers? ’Nuff said! There is no better way to keep the energy high and whet our collective appetite for more.
Act II started with a new song by an old friend–Mel Blanc had written and recorded “I Tawt I Taw a Puddy Tat” many years ago and put the tape—the tape!—in a drawer. It was located after his death and a dazzling new-style 3D cartoon was made. “Coyote Falls” was next, with Coyote and Road Runner in glorious 3D.
The best part of the afternoon was the penultimate orchestral selection, accompanying my all-time favorite Bugs Bunny cartoon, “What’s Opera, Doc?” where Daughtery pointed out you can get the entire “Ring” cycle and more, works that would ordinarily take several evenings to enjoy, in the span of one short film – about six and a half minutes! Finally, the orchestra played the “Merrie Melodies” theme and out the door we went, high on life and some of the best animations and orchestrations the world has seen so far. Thank you, NJSO, for making a dream we didn’t know we had come true!
NJSO’s Winter Festival is up next, and it includes a residency with the dazzling Sarah Chang! Get your tickets today at www.njsymphony.org