One of the greatest Looney Tunes shorts of all time features Bugs Bunny as an orchestra conductor, seeking revenge on an unsuspecting opera singer. Clad in a tuxedo and white powdered wig, Bugs wields the baton like a weapon, leading the singer through an outlandish aria that ends in total destruction of the theater. Created in 1949, the cartoon is actually a satirical send up of Leopold Stowkowski, the conductor who famously established the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. As a kid, Bugs provided my only insight into the job of an orchestra conductor. While the profession does not actually involve falling anvils and ridiculous sight gags, writer Justin Davis undertook the job for a few weeks, revealing its overlooked challenges.
With outlandish gestures and a baton that swats at the air, I’ve always thought the conductor was just a formality, placed at the head of an orchestra as a sort of musical mascot. As it turns out, all that fancy hand jive is essential in communicating the vast knowledge locked inside the conductor’s brain. “There are a few miles of roadway that I have driven often enough to navigate them faultlessly in my mind,” writes Davidson. “I know every pothole, every deer crossing. A conductor needs similarly detailed recall of an enormous musical terrain.” Like a story with 100 characters, a classical composition is extraordinarily multi-faceted, requiring a leader who knows every detail, right down to how and when the cymbals should be struck. We don’t always have the opportunity to attempt a new profession for a day, but Davidson’s experience demystifies and enlightens while revealing the overlooked responsibilities of the conductor. Davidson adds, “If the entire symphonic tradition were incinerated, a team of conductors could write it all out again.”