Keeping Up With The Toons
3 Feb 2012
Inside the Classics

If you had told me six months ago that one of the most mentally and physically exhausting concerts I’d play during the 2011-12 season would be a pops concert, I would most definitely have laughed at you. Pops shows can be fun, they can be musically interesting, they can be exciting – but what they almost never are is difficult, especially if you’re a string player. In an average pops concert, with the orchestra playing back-up band to a guest star, I’ll spend most of my time holding long notes or playing rudimentary scales or progressions designed to bring a murmuring sweetness to the proceedings. Every once in a great while, I might play a brief melody, but it will rarely be anything I couldn’t have executed when I was twelve.

But this weekend, well… what we’re doing is not your average pops concert. Bugs Bunny at the Symphony has been touring the world for 20 years, and from conductor George Daugherty to the technical team responsible for coordinating all the audio and video, this is a well-oiled machine of a show. And it has to be, because wow, is it challenging to play.

To begin with, it’s not actually pops music, of course. The whole reason for having a concert where a live orchestra plays along with the Looney Tunes gang is that Warner Bros. not only employed a house orchestra to record the original soundtracks, but the composers responsible for scoring those old cartoon shorts used a ton of classical warhorses over the years. Who could forget Bugs and Elmer Fudd reenacting Wagner’s Ring cycle in seven minutes? Or Bugs battling with a rogue mouse while trying to perform Lizst’s Hungarian Rhapsody? So the vast majority of what we’re playing in this show is actually core orchestral repertoire, heavy on the late Romantic era.

On top of that, there are two complicating factors. The first is that most of the show runs on a click track, which means that every member of the orchestra is wearing headphones that play a continuous stream of metronomic clicks to keep us in perfect sync with the action on screen. This means that we have to completely discard our normal intuition for keeping the ensemble together, and instead focus solely on keeping our individual parts perfectly in sync with the clicks. In a normal performance, we’re used to using visual and sonic cues to sync with each other, but under these conditions, if we all react sympathetically to, say, a clarinet line that’s taking slightly more time than usual, it’s a train wreck that we’ll never be able to fix. The clicks do not adjust to your schedule, they change tempos and subdivisions without warning, they are always (always!) either slightly faster or slightly slower than you were expecting, and I’m still hearing them echo through my brain two hours after our last rehearsal ended.

The other complication is that, while much of the music we’re playing with Bugs and the gang is taken from familiar scores by Wagner, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, and the like, they’re not actually the original pieces that we all know how to play. The music has been necessarily twisted, molded, and reshaped to match the cartoons. So what feels like a perfectly familiar Strauss waltz will suddenly jump over twelve bars you’re used to playing, or charge ahead in a tempo you’ve never associated with that music before. A quote from a Rossini overture will abruptly shift into the Merrie Melodies tag music. Or, in the case of that Ring cycle classic, music from more Wagner operas than I can count all gets jumbled up and fired out in back-to-back segments with no time to catch your breath or relax your brain. It’s actually kind of terrifying.

Still, our principal violist, Tom Turner, who isn’t playing this concert, dropped by rehearsal today and said that from the house, it all sounds great. The lights will be down on the orchestra most of the time, so presumably, no one will see how overwhelmed we may look at times. Like I said, this whole show is professional with a capital P, and they’ve been doing this forever (apparently, we’re just about the last major orchestra to play it,) so I’m sure it’ll be a huge hit with the near-sellout crowds we’re expecting.

But wow. I’m tired. And we haven’t even started yet.

<February 2020>

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