PM Interview: George Daugherty, Conductor, Bugs Bunny At The Symphony

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Toronto – It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of both classical music and cartoons. So when I learned about Bugs Bunny at the Symphony, I was sold. For close friends, my whole “Bugs Bunny is the reason I love classical music” spiel grew tiresome years ago. Thankfully, I had the opportunity to chat with someone who’s even more passionate about the topic: George Daugherty, the conductor of Bugs Bunny at the Symphony.

Mark J: In 1990, you conducted Bugs Bunny On Broadway at the Gershwin Theatre in New York. Now, after a twenty year hiatus from the Bugs, you’ve decided …

George D: No wait, you’ve got it wrong. You’re way off already. There was no twenty year hiatus! We’ve been doing it steadily for the last twenty years. It’s played in every country of the world with hundreds of symphony orchestras to almost two and a half million people in the last twenty years.

MJ: Oh, sorry…so Bugs on Broadway has been continuing?

GD: Right, and this year is our 20th anniversary, so we did a whole new concert.

“The cartoon is a parody, but the music isn’t a parody, which I think is a really important distinction”  – George Daugherty

MJ: The world of Bugs Bunny and friends is such a fertile one for classical music. Can you comment a bit on the role of classical music as the soundtrack to this cartoon?

GD: What’s Opera, Doc?, along with The Rabbit Seville are both remarkable examples of how [composers Carl Stalling and Milt Franklyn reinvented the whole idea of classical music in cartoons.] What’s Opera, Doc is an especially amazing score because they were able to take all of the major themes from Wagner’s Ring Cycle [over 4 operas, 27 hours of music] and condensed it all into 7 minutes. Considering all of that, the music still has all of the grandeur, the largesse, and the hugeness of Wagner.

[Stalling and Franklyn respected the original works so much] … the cartoon is a parody, but the music isn’t a parody, which I think is a really important distinction.

They haven’t dumbed down the music. The Rabbit of Seville is totally done with a Rossini-sized orchestra and is totally done in a Rossini style. It’s very true to the original, but it’s not the original.

I always warn orchestras, “this is not the Barber of Seville Overture, even though it seems like it may be; and never forget that, or you’ll find yourself playing all by yourself in a big, open, measure of rest!”

MJ: [laugh] Right. Right.

GD: The thing that’s so distinctive about these compared to a lot of other cartoons is the incredible integrity of the music, and how much Stalling and Franklyn really respected the original composition [while putting their own mark on it].

MJ: MMM hmmm…

GD: And that’s why musicians love it. Musicians love to play this concert. It’s a big pain because they are more nights in this concert than five normal orchestral concerts put together. There’s the whole added craziness of keeping up with the cartoons and keeping everything exactly in synch, and having jackhammer sound effects playing along with the orchestra. Musicians love to play this concert because it is so rewarding from a musical point of view.

“Regarding Bugs’ conducting style, Bugs is a really good conductor” – George Daugherty

MJ: You’re playing with a rotating cast of musicians, including the Rochester Symphony, the Malaysian Philharmonic, the Houston Symphony, and that’s just to name a few. There are so many symphonies! Can you comment on the challenges of working with so many musicians and orchestras? How does that process work?

GD: Every orchestra we’re performing with [except two], have done Bugs Bunny on Broadway several times. For an orchestra that’s never done it before, it is a bit of an adjustment. With a normal symphonic concert, you can be more spontaneous. If the oboist has an especially lyrical solo one night and it’s coming out beautifully, you can take more time and really let it grow and expand. With these scores, you have to keep up with the cartoons. There’s no forgiveness in terms of getting behind or getting ahead.

MJ: I’d like to talk about the classic comic “Long-Haired Hare”. In it, Bugs does a superb job conducting the opera singer Giovanni Jones. He pushes him to sing a note so high that it causes the auditorium’s roof to crash down on him. How would you contrast Bugs’ conducting style with your own?

GD: Hahaha! I’ll say one little anecdote about that moment. A few years ago [the Hollywood Bowl shell was replaced]. We were the final concert in the original Hollywood Bowl shell, and we did that cartoon at the end. So when the Hollywood Bowl came crashing down around Bugs, it literally happened the next day. The wrecking balls were already out behind the shell. It was really a life imitates art kind of thing.

Regarding Bugs’ conducting style, Bugs is a really good conductor. I can actually watch Bugs conduct and kind of follow it. Chuck Jones (director) and the other animators were really fantastically accurate about things they did in these cartoons. The conducting is real conducting patterns and it’s right on the music.

By contrast, we now do a cartoon called Tom & Jerry at the Hollywood Bowl. Tom, that cat, Tom, is a horrible conductor. I literary cannot watch when Tom conducts while I’m conducting. It’s like chewing gum and walking badly at the same time. It totally screws me up.

MJ: Hahaha, that’s very interesting.

GD: It’s still a brilliant cartoon though, but the conducting [wasn’t so accurate].

“Tom, that cat, Tom, is a horrible conductor.” – George Daugherty

MJ: If you had to choose a Looney Tunes character that best describes you, Bugs included of course, which Looney Tunes character would you be?

GD: I will give you the quote that Chuck Jones once told me, “We all go to bed at night aspiring to be Bugs Bunny. We all wake up the next morning, and look in the mirror and discover that we’re actually Daffy Duck.” I think that’s kind of true for everybody. Bugs Bunny is kind of the ultimate in cool. He doesn’t mess with you unless you mess with him. He rises above it all, but I think many of us are actually Daffy in real life.

One thing I learned twenty years ago when I started with this concert is that I remain the conductor, that I remain human. Trying to compete with these animated characters is a losing battle, because they are great stars that have endured for decades. I let them be the setting, and I do the music.

MJ: Well, thanks a lot for your time!

GD: My pleasure!

Bugs Bunny at the Symphony plays in the Centre In The Square in the Kitchener-Waterloo area on April 7th and 8th, and at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto on Saturday, April 9th (two performances).

Concert Review: Foster The People, April 3rd, Lee’s Palace

Posted on by Ricky in Concerts | 2 Comments

Toronto – Three songs. That’s all it takes to sell out a venue like Lee’s Palace these days. By selling out one of the most prestigious venues in Toronto on a strength of an EP, California’s Foster The People have definitely set a template that any up and coming bands would want to follow. The template of course, is easier said and done as I cannot remember a band whose first release was as good as Foster the People’s was. Anticipation at Lee’s was high, as the extremely sold out crowd waited anxiously for the band to arrive. Much like the Miami Horror show on Friday, I was not quite sure where all these people are coming from. I must be missing the boat somewhere.

A multitude of high pitch shrieks greeted the on stage arrival of Foster the People, perhaps shedding light as to the bands sudden rise from obscurity. Mark Foster, the baby faced shaggy hair leader, was a certified chick magnet, enticing the larger then usual female capacity to shower him with love with every glancing smile. Pulling a drum set towards the center of the stage, he started off the set with an unknown song, certainly off their new album Torches. I’ll be honest, every time I see a lead singer pull a drum kit and then proceed to bash on it, I am reminded of last year’s darlings, The Temper Trap. Much like their 2010 Australian counterparts, Foster The People’s strength lies in their singers voice. Mark Foster’s voice is a bit high pitch but it’s got a coolness to it, reminding me of Adam Levine. Combine that with the bands penchant for following a soft synth rock formula and I came away with the impression that this band is going to become the next Maroon 5. The irony of this is that I’ve only really heard a few Maroon 5 songs, but Foster The People’s what I assume Maroon 5 sound like on a good day. I could be completely wrong.

Obviously, with the rest of the songs unreleased, the show did not take hold until one of the familiar tracks got played. Once drummer Mark Pontius started with the opening beats of Houdini, the super excitable crowd started revving up, there was more screaming and it was game on. Switching between a few keyboards and singing on the microphone, Mark Foster did an admirable job as lead, although I suspect in time he will have a few more dance moves besides shrugging his shoulders up and down while singing. With only three known songs in their arsenal, the band did a good job spacing them out with their unreleased tracks. The new music I heard was very similar in vein with the released ones – light, poppy, radio friendly with a knack for catchy synth lines and singable choruses (once the crowd knows about the tracks). There wasn’t anything that was dramatically different, but I guess when you can acquire such a large fan base so quickly, why break up a good thing?

As one would expect, the ridiculously catchy single Pumped Up Kicks highlighted the show and even produced a crowd sing-a-long. For my money, this crowd was much better then the crowd from SXSW, who while enthusiastic, certainly did not have a sing-a-long with the band. A rapturous ovation later, the band returned and finished off a satisfying set with Helena Beat, allowing the sold out crowd leave happy.

With their debut album Torches out on May 24th, Foster the People will be back at the larger Mod Club on June 18th. Is it a NXNE showcase? I don’t know. What I do know is that if this band continues to put out tracks solid as the ones they’ve released, that show will be sold out. Get your tickets early.

Foster The People – Helena Beat by The Clink

Concert Review: The Mountain Goats, April 3, The Opera House

Posted on by Paul in Concerts | Leave a comment

Toronto – After The Mountain Goats played their first song, I heard a fan behind me shouting out for “Going To Georgia.”  Seriously?  Shouting out requests at a concert is a dubious activity at the best of times, but this was a demonstration of some serious overexuberance and/or impatience.  Not to mention a serious misjudgement of how good John Darnielle’s hearing was. Still, his enthusiasm could be forgiven, seeing as how The Mountain Goats had not been through town since 2007. 

Despite the long gap between visits, Darnielle and co. made a great impression on the packed crowd.  They entered to the strains of Morbid Angel’s “Where The Slime Live” (Best. Entrance music. Ever.), a nod to Darnielle’s metal fanhood and an obvious tribute to Eric Rutan, who produced several songs off their new tarot card themed album, All Eternals Deck.  Darnielle apologized for taking so long to come back and noted that they have since acquired a drummer, the great Jon Wurster of Superchunk and The Best Show fame.  The man resposible for bringing us The Gorch added some nice touches on the kit, but sadly, did not attack anybody with a chain.    

This was my first time seeing the Mountain Goats as a full band and while the band does add quite a bit, when it comes down to it, The Mountains Goats is all about Darnielle’s songs.  Lyrically, the songs are quite evocative and usually an example of fine storytelling.  Darnielle also proved to be a fine storyteller between songs, telling stories that were both amusing (anecdotes about his admiration for Amy Grant and how she inspired him to not wear shoes onstage) and insightful (the story behind a song that was inspired by a time when he broke up with a girl … by mailing her a letter!)

Of course, I couldn’t quite hear all of these stories.  Such is the case when you get a large group of people together in one space, some of whom are a tad too enthusiastic about their love for the band.  It just so happened that I was situated for awhile near a group of young, drunk fans who were a bit too loud and talking throughout the set.  Apparently another, more silent fan had been either telling them to be quiet or giving them the stinkeye or both, but it erupted at one point into one of them yelling at this guy and getting angry over him telling them to shut up.  Now, I am not a huge fan of talking at shows, but was not overly troubled by their talking until the yelling started, at which point, I turned and said, as politely as possible, “Yeah, but could you please shut up now?”  (I did say please …)  I don’t begrudge them their chance to have a little fun and don’t think there was any malice or disregard for the band in their behaviour.  They did seem to be Mountain Goats fans in their own way, but I got the impression that perhaps they’re more accustomed to going to punk shows.  I tell you this though; if this had been a Mark Kozelek show, Kozelek would’ve come down off the stage and eviscerated them for daring to talk during his set.  Still, regardless of any shenanigans happening in the audience, it was a solid set from a solid band.  Now please don’t wait another five years to come back to town.

The Mountain Goats – Damn These Vampires by Indiespot

Concert Review: The Joy Formidable, April 2, The Horseshoe Tavern

Posted on by Paul in Concerts | Leave a comment

joy formidable

Toronto – The Joy Formidable exude an incredible amount of energy and intensity in their live performance.  One might even say it was formidable if one was given to making cheesy references to the band’s name in their reviews.  Guilty as charged, I suppose.

Opening with The Everchanging Spectrum Of A Lie, they played their first number as if it were their last.  Starting out full throttle with an epic number, they pretty much maintained that level throughout their performance.  Several songs descended into waves of noise and feedback bolstered by powerhouse drumming that occasionally reached an almost death metal/grindcore level of intensity.  Drummer Matt Thomas is one of the hardest hitting drummers I’ve seen lately.

Speaking of hard-hitting, bassist Rhydian Dafydd was literally hitting a drum onstage during one song.  With his fist.  Very hard.  Several times.  I chatted with the band before the show and mentioned how I had seen him taking out his aggression on a drum in a similar fashion during their SXSW Fader Fort show.  He claimed not to remember punching a drum that night, yet here he was doing it all over again.  So either he does this on occasion when the mood strikes or I planted the seed in his head, convincing him that he must pound the hell out of that drum.  I’ll go with the latter as it makes me feel very self-important, like I’ve got a lot of influence.

Vocalist/guitarist Ritzy Bryan is full of kinetic energy, often moving about the stage in spontaneous, jerky movements.  It was interesting to watch her eyes during the performance as she had an intense kind of stare going on much of the time.  It was the best use of eyes to convey a certain mood/effect since James Callis played Gaius Baltar on Battlestar Galactica.

During a live performance, bands will often build up momentum during a set, but when you start off as strong as The Joy Formidable did, it’s hard to build up to anything.  In fact in some ways, each song felt a bit like a mini concert, building to a head each time.  Yet by ending their main set in an orgy of distortion, smashing/beating on stuff, and playing with their effects pedals, it really did have a sense of finality to it that made the encore almost seem like an afterthought.  Yet after a brief break wherein their crew (which included one guy who amusingly sat in the back corner of the stage during their entire set) re-tuned their instruments, they did return for two more songs, capping off the evening in a satisfying way. 

Joy Formidable – The Greatest Light Is The Greatest Shade by The Drift Record Shop