Many of us weaned on pop culture gained an appreciation for classical music not by taking piano lessons from the biddy down the block, but rather by watching Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. Stocked with highbrow references to opera and "serious music," these Saturday morning cartoons were far from brainless. Timeless episodes abound, like "Rhapsody Rabbit" -- featuring Bugs in full concert dress, thwarted in his attempts to perform Franz Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody by a pesky mouse in the piano -- and "A Corny Concerto," which contains two Strauss waltzes, a Tchaikovsky piano concerto, and Elmer Fudd masquerading as famed conductor Leopold Stokowski. They were often our first introductions to -- and most memorable encounters with -- the works of these musical masters.
Renowned conductor and composer George Daugherty reawakens such collective childhood memories in his multimedia salute to cartoons and classical music, Bugs Bunny on Broadway, which kicks off the San Francisco Symphony's "Summer in the City" concert series. A "wacky ballet of animation characters and symphony orchestra musicians," as Daugherty describes it, Bugs was originally conceived for the cwazy wabbit's 50th anniversary in 1990. An accomplished director and producer for film and TV as well as a diverse composer, Daugherty found inspiration in cartoons. Watching his childhood favorites with the adult "ears of a conductor," he gained new appreciation for the music accompanying these "cinematic jewels." Daugherty credits Carl Stalling and Milt Franklyn -- the composer and arranger, respectively, of many cartoon scores -- with part of Bugs Bunny's legacy and enduring popularity. "Stalling and Franklyn were geniuses. I was amazed at the intensity and texture and brilliance of these scores," he enthuses. In Bugs, the cast of animated crackpots -- including Wile E. Coyote, the Road Runner, Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig, and Daffy Duck -- takes center stage. The original TV shows are enlarged and projected onto a screen behind the orchestra, complete with digitally remastered voices and crash-bang-whiz sound effects.
Admission is $7.50-54
The program consists of pieces that appeal to aficionados of both classical music and cartoons. Gioacchino Rossini's overture to Barber of Seville is reinvented in the ominous "The Rabbit of Seville," and several of Wagner's operas, including The Flying Dutchmanand Tannhäuser, pop up in "What's Opera, Doc?" Daugherty calls the concert the "Rocky Horror Picture Showof classical music" because of its high level of audience participation: Die-hard fans come not in suits and gowns but in carrot corsages and rabbit ears. Now in its 11th year, the show has toured to sold-out audiences in New York, Sydney, Moscow, and Japan -- exemplifying what Daugherty sees as "the universal nature of the cartoons and the characters, [which] cross borders and languages." Th-th-th-th-that's all folks.