L.A.'S GREAT COMMUNICATOR; CHARISMATIC LEADER MAUCERI ENSURES VITALIZED BOWL ORCHESTRA, RAPT AUDIENCE.
When he steps under the curved Art Deco proscenium of the Hollywood Bowl, John Mauceri always has plenty of company.
He has 85 musicians beside him. Eighteen thousand pairs of eyes watching him. And a guest-star lineup that typically includes an r&b diva, a costumed samba dance troupe or the USC Trojan Marching Band.
Spiritual folk may even imagine that Mauceri's old mentor, Leonard Bernstein, is smiling down benevolently. The only thing missing from this carnival atmosphere is an irrepressible ringleader such as Flo Ziegfeld or Ed Sullivan.
But with Mauceri around, who needs them?
With a silky baritone made for radio and a personality made for a '50s variety special, Mauceri is L.A.'s great communicator of popular music. New York-bred and Ivy League-educated, he fuses the breezy fact-dropping of the Yale don he once was with the glib smarts of a Bronx cab driver.
A man whose DNA-encoded charm is legendary from Costa Mesa to Turin, Italy, where he holds the post of music director at the Teatro Regio, Mauceri, 51, is the youthfully eager embodiment of one of the world's youngest symphonic entities. Since its 1991 inception as a summer home for A-list studio musicians, the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra has grown into a fixture of L.A.'s seasonal calendar and a prominent international showcase for new orchestral works. (The Daily News occasionally sponsors Bowl concerts.)
Knowing a sex symbol when it sees one, the city has embraced Mauceri, although in a different way than it once embraced his sort-of predecessor, Hollywood Bowl Symphony maestro Leopold Stokowski. Whipping along the Hollywood Freeway in his pitch-black Mercedes-Benz convertible, his gray-blond hair artfully disarrayed, Mauceri (pronounced mau-CHAIR-ee) gives no hint of European aloofness. He's a bicoastal showman, an educator-entertainer who warms up the crowd with witty three-minute introductions that sound off the cuff but are as carefully scripted as an Oscar night speech.
Ease and eloquence
While other maestros cloak themselves in imperious silence, Mauceri banters and flirts, instructs and arouses with an ease and eloquence well beyond the grasp of your average talk-show host or career politician.
One apocryphal story has it that some impressionable Japanese schoolgirls fainted after meeting Mauceri at an Osaka concert. Whether you think he's matinee-idol material or not, Mauceri doesn't lack charisma.
``I've never known a conductor of that quality to have such a connection with an audience,'' says Armen Ksajikian, the orchestra's associate principal cellist. ``They (the audience members) talk to him, and he talks back.''
Mauceri's a populist all right, a guy who loves playing to the bleacher bums - ``back there in another area code,'' as he likes to say.
But he's a stealth populist. By gradually exposing Bowl patrons to a broad catalog of popular music (Broadway, country, r&b), Mauceri wants listeners to reconnect with an overlooked part of their heritage.
It's the soundtrack of everyday life - the lush, colorful rumblings of loss and longing, triumph and failure, not the cold, atonal abstractions of what's still somewhat misleadingly termed ``modern'' music.
``We're still singing love songs, we're still worried about picking up our kids at school, we still miss things from our past, we still want to take a vacation and go to Venice,'' Mauceri says, taking a break from rehearsal last week at the orchestra's offices in the Cahuenga Pass.
``Our souls are fundamentally romantic. We can think a lot, but we still are powered by very strong forces that have to do with emotions. So, to have a whole world of music that's considered acceptable, which is based only on reason or on thought or on a very intellectual process, without that underpinning of spirit, is ultimately a dead art form, an art form that will never be accepted except by a very small group of people.''
`Inside the tube'
Mauceri's cultural world view first took shape while he was growing up in a middle-class New York household, where he ``lived inside the cathode ray tube.'' In that so-called golden age of commercial television, there was nothing unusual about seeing a vaudeville troupe followed by a biography of Salvador Dali, a puppet show, a Hopalong Cassidy movie and a sci-fi program whose theme music was Wagner's ``Flying Dutchman'' overture - all in one afternoon.
The Bell Telephone Hour was must viewing. Ed Sullivan was God.
``It was an all-embracing view of culture, which was not categorized,'' Mauceri says. ``In other words, I was not told, `Well you should like this but you shouldn't like this, if you like this you can't like that.' ''
But when he got to Yale, Mauceri says, his plebeian tastes clashed with those of the venerable faculty.
``I showed up writing music in F-sharp minor, beautiful pieces of music, and I was patted gently on the head and told, `Dear boy, this is not acceptable anymore.'
``Normally, the way I describe it is, they applied the electrodes. I didn't have the courage to go against them, and yet I hated the music I was writing in spite of the fact that I was winning awards.''
After nearly 20 years as an undergrad, graduate student and instructor at Yale, Mauceri left New Haven and never looked back. By then his conducting career was well under way.
As the 7-year-old Bowl Orchestra's first, and so far only principal conductor, he now wants to help L.A. audiences gain a better understanding of the city's indigenous culture. He has been a skillful, impassioned advocate of some of Hollywood's greatest hits: Miklos Rozsa's stirring score for ``King of Kings,'' Bernard Hermann's haunting ``Psycho,'' Erich Korngold's swashbuckling suite for ``Robin Hood.''
He also makes a point of bringing new Broadway music to the Bowl, instead of rerunning ``West Side Story'' or ``Gigi'' for the umpteenth time. This season's lineup includes three September evenings devoted to highlights from ``Ragtime,'' ``Titanic,'' and ``Rent.'' The three just-concluded Independence Day concerts allowed L.A. audiences to hear the world premiere of Stephen Flaherty's orchestral suite for ``Ragtime,'' the turn-of-the-century fable currently playing at the Shubert Theatre in Century City.
Hunger for new material
``A lot of the symphonies that do play pops concerts, you get so used to the old warhorses,'' says Flaherty. ``I think there is a hunger for new material as well, not the same old things that people have been hearing year after year.''
If a work is an untested commodity, or a neglected masterpiece such as Duke Ellington's ``Harlem,'' all the more reason to bring it to the Bowl. A couple of years ago, Mauceri and his players brought tears to Rozsa's eyes when they performed the rarely heard love theme from ``Ben-Hur.''
A speaker-telephone caught the ailing composer's one-word response: ``Bravo.''
Last weekend, Mauceri and company held the West Coast premiere of the orchestral suite from Disney's just-released ``Hercules'' - a programming choice that some pops orchestras would deem too risky.
Don't get the wrong idea. The Bowl season, which stretches through Sept. 27, still makes room for Tchaikovsky's ``1812 Overture,'' Ravel's ``Bolero'' and other petrified pops relics. (For the record, Mauceri professes to hate the phrase ``pops concert'' but slips into using it anyway.)
But at the Bowl, you'll also hear Brazilian samba and American soul, a staged version of ``My Fair Lady'' with Jonathan Pryce as Henry Higgins and Nashville diva Trisha Yearwood belting out Irving Berlin tunes. For this weekend's three performances of ``Oklahoma!'' Mauceri had the novel idea of casting sultry '90s country stars Pam Tillis and Billy Dean in the leads. It's the first time in memory that an L.A. country radio station has carried ads for a Bowl event.
``I try to give people a certain comfort level in these concerts, but always giving them something new, giving them something that maybe takes them on a journey that they didn't expect,'' Mauceri says.
A lofty sentiment, perhaps, given that the most frequent trip many Bowl patrons take is for chardonnay refills.
But with a new three-year contract extension in his pocket and a slew of CDs on the shelves, Mauceri and his orchestra seem booked for a lengthy passage. Ah, if they could only see him now, his old Yale colleagues, harrumphing in three-quarter time!
``There's a tremendous responsibility to the people who come, because it's a very varied audience and a wonderful audience that's now willing to trust me,'' Mauceri sums up. ``And I have to be very responsible with that trust - how far to go, how much unknown music can I play?''
As Americans used to hear every Sunday night, get ready for a Really Big Show.
Broadway, `Star Wars,' `Oklahoma!' and more
Summertime and the living is easy. Or so said George and Ira Gershwin, two Hollywood Bowl perennials. You'll find George listed among these coming highlights:
Rodgers and Hammerstein's ``Oklahoma!'' - Country music stars Pam Tillis, Billy Dean and Crystal Bernard play the leads in this staged concert version of the landmark musical. (July 11, 12, 13)
Flying Down to Rio - Sergio Mendes Brasil 99 and a troupe of costumed Samba dancers bring the sounds of Copacabana to the Bowl. Fireworks to follow. (July 25, 26)
Marvin Hamlisch and Nathan Lane - The Los Angeles Philharmonic backs up the profilic composer of ``A Chorus Line'' and ``The Way We Were,'' with help from the multifaceted actor. (Aug. 1, 2)
Tchaikovsky Spectacular - John Mauceri and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra join with the San Francisco Ballet and the USC Trojan Marching Band to present the second act of ``Swan Lake,'' the Overture-Fantasy from ``Romeo and Juliet'' and the ``1812 Overture'' with fireworks. (Aug. 8, 9, 10)
Patti LaBelle - This years's winner of the American Music Awards top r&b female artist trophy teams with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. (Aug. 15, 16, 17)
Vive La France! - The City of Lights comes to Southern California with Gershwin's ``An American in Paris'' and selections from Lerner & Loewe's ``Gigi.'' (Aug. 22, 23)
``Star Wars'' 20th Anniversary - John Williams leads this tribute to his own stirring film score, with appearances by Darth Vader, R2-D2, C-3P0 and Chewbaca. (Aug. 29, 30)
Broadway '97 - Hear music from ``Ragtime,'' ``Rent,'' ``Chicago,'' ``Candide,'' ``Smokey Joe's Cafe'' and Andrew Lloyd Webber in a salute to the Great White Way. (Sept. 5, 6, 7)
To order tickets by credit card, call Ticketmaster at (213) 480-3232. Tickets also may be purchased at the Hollywood Bowl Office, 2301 N. Highland Ave. 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday.
Drawing, Photo, Box
Drawing: (Cover--Color) ELECTRIC CONDUCTOR
Leader John Mauceri brings passion, charisma to Hollywood Bowl Orchestra
Photo: Hollywood Bowl Orchestra conductor John Mauceri: ``I think there is a hunger for new material as well, not the same old things that people have been hearing year after year.''
Hans Gutknecht/Daily News
Box: Broadway, `Star Wars,' `Oklahoma!' and more