TAFTO 2012 Contribution: George Daugherty

I dare you to read George Daugherty’s contribution and not leave with a warm and fuzzy feeling. As the creator and conductor for the wildly popular Bugs Bunny on Broadway and Bugs Bunny at the Symphony programs, George relates some of his experiences in that arena but make sure to catch the final half as it’s one of the most touching and powerful contributions to date.  ~ Drew McManus

For the past 23 years, I have conducted these crazy concerts called Bugs Bunny on Broadway and Bugs Bunny at the Symphony, where we pair the greatest symphony orchestras in the world with an evening full of Looney Tunes projected on a big screen above the orchestra, and do all the great classical music/classic animation send-ups like What’s Opera, Doc?, The Rabbit of Seville, Rhapsody Rabbit, et al, with their incomparable Carl Stalling rollercoaster-ride, heart-pounding original scores played live.

When my “partner in crime” David Wong and I thought up this hare-brained idea in 1989, I was told, if I was lucky, that we might get a year’s worth of concerts “with a few orchestras” out of this concept, but that I shouldn’t give up my long-term ballet, opera, and symphony orchestra gigs.  (After all, the experts from the traditional symphony world said, who would want to see video projected above a live orchestra?  Nobody had ever done THAT before.  It would be such a distraction to the music!)

Twenty-three years later, these concerts have played with more than 100 orchestras worldwide (many of which to whom we’ve returned 10 times or more), in the U.S., Canada, Australia/New Zealand, Europe, and Asia, to a total audience of over two million people.

We’ve been in venues ranging from the sublime of the Hollywood Bowl, Sydney Opera House, Severance Hall, Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, and Wolf Trap, to the ridiculous (and by that, I mean “ridiculous” in a very good way): Like closing down Times Square on a Saturday afternoon with a stage almost three stories high in the air, under the famous Diamond Vision screen where the New Year’s Eve ball drops. Then there was the outside temporary venue in Montreal at Just For Laughs Festival, where over 20,000 inebriated Quebecois had waited in line for hours for the first come, first served seats (one of our best audiences ever). And I will never forget the 50,000 people over five days of sold-out performances in the Kremlin Palace in Moscow; former home of the Supreme Soviet where Khrushchev used to bang his shoe on a table, before it was turned into a concert hall (although they still have the same blinding “on/off” fluorescent lights illuminating the auditorium).

Bugs at the Hollywood Bowl
Bugs at the Hollywood Bowl
Bugs In Taiwan
Bugs In Taiwan
Bugs In Taiwan
Bugs In Taiwan
Bugs in Bellas Artes
Bugs in Bellas Artes

I don’t cite these statistics to blow my own Wagner trumpet (Bugs style, a la “What’s Opera, Doc?”), but use these factoids to illustrate that I have already, in a broad sense, “taken” a fair amount of newbies (also known as friends) to the symphony. In fact, our ongoing data continues to show that from 50 percent to 70 percent of our average non-subscription ticket buyers are stepping into a concert hall for the first time in their lives; regardless of the location.

So basically, at virtually every Bugs Bunny concert, at least half of the audience members have never before experienced the thrill of a live symphony orchestra.  And in virtually every performance you can feel, hear, and sense their excitement from the stage.

And it’s not just me that can feel the electricity – I see it in the faces of almost every musician standing with me on the stage as they are bestowed with deafening ovations, whistles, and “woo-hoos” that are considerably louder (on the decibel meter) than your average classical rep concert.  Because our new audience members, as we tend to refer to them in the industry, scream and cheer for the orchestra musicians like they are rock stars.  The audience’s pure, unbridled, and unfettered enthusiasm has not been tempered by years of acquiring the “good manners and polite restraint” that comes from learning traditional concert hall protocol; they are just going wild for the incredible, amazing, extraordinary, and spectacular sight and sound of 70+ musicians playing so magnificently onstage.

Yes, of course, Bugs and Co. get their fair share of laughs and applause.  But in our performances, it is always the musicians who get the screaming ovations; which is how it should be.  And in our case, it comes from very large audiences.  Approximately 95% of our concerts are completely sold out, attesting not only to the popularity of a certain rabbit and his friends, but more so to what is possible when symphony orchestras push the envelope, and offer alternative programming to stimulate the interest of a widely diverse demographic whose interests fall somewhere between “traditional classical” and “traditional pops,” and who don’t always get served with concerts that pull them into the hall.

And that has always been my philosophy: get people into the concert hall for the first time (adults, kids, teens, older people, I don’t care) and excite them. If you can do that, then you can expect that some of them will come back for more; and our box office statistics show that they do come back.  So that has been my Take A Friend To The Orchestra experience on the grand scale and 23 years later, I am still conducting for Maestro Bunny.  And…contrary to those early predictions back in 1989-90, I have not yet had time to return, at least full-time, to the opera, ballet, and traditional symphony career that I reluctantly had to pare down in order to stay on the road with The Rabbit.

Something A Bit More Personal

But as exciting as the Bugs projects have been, in terms of bringing people into our magnificent and magical orchestral world for the first time, there is a much more one-on-one experience that comes to mind, which I will never forget, when I took a friend to the orchestra.

It happened when I took a young autistic teenager, and his mother, to hear the Mahler Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”) played by the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra several years ago.

I can already feel the shudders coming from some of you who are reading this; a youth orchestra playing Mahler 2, you are thinking incredulously?????!!!!!

Well, first of all, if you’ve never heard them, you have to understand that the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra is an ensemble that, if you listened to one of their recordings without looking at them, would make you think you were listening to a very major orchestra.  They are simply extraordinary.  And on this occasion, they had the entire massive San Francisco Symphony Chorus onstage with them, which the parent SFS had loaned for this occasion, plus two world-class singers as soloists.

It was also an unusually poignant occasion, being the very gifted Alasdair Neale’s farewell concert with this orchestra…an orchestra he had molded and influenced so brilliantly for a number of years.  So on this day, the power of Mahler’s music was enhanced by the palpable musical emotion of these young musicians as the said goodbye to a beloved maestro.

And of course, it was Mahler 2.  Which is simply transformational and awe inspiring just on its own.  (And is very special to me.  My first professional conducting gig a million years earlier, at the age of 19, had been conducting its offstage brass for the late great Thomas Briccetti. ) So this work has always had a very dear place in my heart.

Anyway, I had met this young man and his mother several years earlier; because they have attended every single Bugs Bunny On Broadway concert I’ve conducted with the San Francisco Symphony.  From that experience, the young man had become absolutely mesmerized with symphony orchestras, and apparently was playing our Bugs CD so non-stop that his mother and siblings were about to go Looney.  Literally.  So his mother asked me if we might take him back to the concert hall and introduce him to “something else.”

I knew that this very special Mahler performance was coming up, and although nothing could be quite as opposite, in the traditional sense, from Bugs Bunny as Mahler, I thought this would be just the right concert for him.  Especially with a stage filled with teenagers his same age.  So I took the young man and his mother as my guests.

You have to understand something about this young man.  Although obviously bright and engaged, he had never ever spoken a word to anybody but his mother.  He didn’t even speak in front of his brothers and sisters.  His autism was deeply rooted in a non-verbal way.  But you could see in his eyes that he was taking in everything you said to him, and was processing it all.

So, on that very special day, the young man, his mother, and I went to Davies Symphony Hall to hear Mahler 2 played by the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra.

From the riveting opening tremolo of the violins and violas, followed by the thunderous entrance of the celli and basses, it was obvious that this was going to be quite a performance.  Everybody in the hall felt it.

I looked over at my young friend, and he was already transfixed.  And he remained transfixed throughout the entire performance.  He was concentrating and taking it all in – I was trying to read what was going on inside his head, although I wasn’t quite sure yet.  And then, during the fourth movement’s glorious mezzo solo, Urlicht, a beautiful smile came over his face.

And at the hushed and heavenly entrance of the chorus halfway through the final movement, another expression came over his face: one of wonderment, of inspiration, of peace.  He was hearing something so magical and so beautiful; it was obvious he was moved in a profound way. As the last movement built to its powerful finale with orchestra and chorus at full strength, along with the pipe organ that makes its entrance at a dynamic level that literally vibrated the seats, tears started streaming down his face. But he kept looking straight at the stage, all the way through the final deafening chord and its cut-off. The audience erupted into a thunderous ovation…but my young friend didn’t applaud.  He didn’t move.  The tears just continued to stream down his young face.

And then, when the audience had finally quieted and started to leave the hall, my young friend turned to me.  And he said “Thank you.  That was perfect.  That was beautiful.”

These were the first words I had ever heard him speak.  Until that moment, I didn’t even know what his voice sounded like.  I had received many hugs from him over the years, but never a word.

But he was totally right. It had been perfect, and it had been beautiful. Both the music on stage, coming from those phenomenal young musicians,  and especially, the reaction of this incredibly special young man.

Perfect.  Beautiful.