A symphony is no joke

When you think "symphony," what do you think of?

Speaking for myself: I think "Leopold!"

By which I mean this:

Like anyone who was a child in the 70s, I learned
about much of life — including the
practice habits of professional musicians, the existence of
the Hollywood Bowl, and much more about classical music
— by watching Looney Tunes on Saturday mornings.

This knowledge has stood me in good stead over the years, but it turns out
that it was incomplete. For example,
just today I found out that the Leopold parodied in the cartoon was Leopold
, the child of a Polish father and Irish mother. (Polish/Irish:
my kind of people!) Mr. Stokowski spoke with a vague Eastern European accent
even though he was born and raised in London. (Strange affectations to create an air of mystery and intrigue: my kind of people!) He was a grand showman, and was key in creating the "pops" style of symphony concert.

Even though I didn’t know much about Stokowski before today, I could easily have guessed
what he looked like:

Leopold! For real this time.

He also, famously, conducted without a baton. But of course, you may already have guessed that.

I bring this up because on Sunday I attended a performance of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, along
with several other culturally-inclined local bloggers,
at the generous invitation of the Symphony, via their charming Artistic Planner Jonathan Mayes.
The concert was of works by Dmitri
, and featured the engaging and talented Vassily
as conductor, Vladimir Feltsman performing a heart-stopping,
nearly show-stopping piano solo, Charles Lirette delightful
in the unusual trumpet solo, and the orchestra in its best form.

While all of it was marvelous,
I most enjoyed the Suite from The Bolt. This suite features
revised movements from what must have been a bizarre ballet. From the program

The main problem with [Shostakovich’s] second ballet, The Bolt, was
its hopelessly bad scenario. Shostakovich described it to a friend: "The
content is very topical. There’s a machine. Then it breaks down (a problem
of wear and tear on the equipment). Then they fix it (a problem of amortization),
and at the same time they buy a new one. Then everyone dances around the
new machine. Apotheosis. All this takes three acts."

The stage production of The Bolt closed after just one performance.

As horrific a ballet as it sounds, the music from it is amazing. Shostakovich
pulled musical phrases and elements from all over — folk tunes, tango, polka
that never quite gets going, frenetic machine-sounding bits, marching bands,
whatever — and integrated it into a fluid whole. (Of course,
as the production notes suggest, "One really must forget that the drama
involves a broken machine if one is to keep a straight face.") It’s fantastic,
frightening, melancholy and happy, melodic and atonal, big and small, each
in quick succession and sometimes all at once. It made me wonder why I listen
to so little classical music.

It reminded me, actually, of the music of Raymond
, an American 20th
century composer and eccentric band leader. Even if you think you don’t know
Raymond Scott, you would probably recognize at least sections of "Powerhouse," which
many people — Soul Coughing, They Might Be Giants, Rush, others — have
sampled. Check out
this excerpt of
the fast bit from "Powerhouse

"Powerhouse" is what popped in my head just after The Bolt concluded. It was written in 1936. Shostakovich’s The
was performed (once) in 1930 and the revised Suite was
published in 1934. Interesting, no?

And more
music history
: "[I]n 1943, Scott sold the rights to his music to
Warner Brothers, where music director Carl Stalling was a Scott fan. Warner
Brothers purchase of Scott’s music publishing rights allowed Stalling to quote
the music extensively in his cartoon scores." Including — you guessed it —
Looney Tunes.

So maybe my cartoon-based music foundation wasn’t too bad after all.

Incidentally, if you’d like to read more about Sunday’s concert and reactions
from other bloggers — many of them blissfully free of my little Chuck Klosterman-style
pop culture references — check out the
Symphony’s nicely-done blog page

4 replies on “A symphony is no joke”

  1. Do you recall the SNL episode from about 15 years ago that Jeremy Irons hosted ?

    In it, he did a commercial for “Looney Tunes Classics” in which he stated that “Like you, my first exposure to classical music was through Bugs Bunny cartoons.” He went out to highlight the only known english words for The Ride of the Valkyries by showing Elmer Fudd singing “Hunt Da Wabbit”.

    I’ve searched high and low for the clip (youtube, metacafe,etc) but can’t find it unfortunately.

  2. Erich: I don’t remember the episode, and I can’t find it online either. Looks like it was Episode #16.16, in 1991.

    Frustratingly, “What’s Opera, Doc?” isn’t on the multi-disc set of Looney Tunes classics. But it is on the one-disc set that came out the same year. Arrg.

    But fortunately it is on Google Video:

    “Yes! Magic Helmet! And I’ll give you a sample!”

  3. Like anyone who was a child in the 70s, I learned about much of life — including the practice habits of professional musicians, the existence of the Hollywood Bowl, and much more about classical music — by watching Looney Tunes on Saturday mornings.

    So very true. I have written about this very same subject. watching Bugs Bunny was the bedrock of my education.

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