Last week, John Mauceri, long-time conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, announced plans to step down after next summer’s season. The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra was formed in 1991 to help ease the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s busy year-round schedule and to fill the slot at Philips Records left vacant by the Boston Pops. John Mauceri was selected as the music director and the orchestra was staffed by many freelance studio musicians.
I was already the guitarist for the Philharmonic, especially active during the summer “pops” (I hate that word…) season and was hoping to be involved in the new orchestra. Fortunately, the call came and I became a charter member of the new HBO. Not too much was known among the players about John, except that he had been a protégé of Leonard Bernstein.
At the first rehearsal, I saw something I had never seen. Before the rehearsal began, while the players were warming up and getting their instruments ready, John Mauceri walked amongst the different sections of the orchestra and greeted the musicians, introducing himself and making small talk and joking with them. He even knew some of the players’ names already. He made a big first impression and the players were ready to play their best for him.
John proved immediately how serious he was about creating great music and bringing it to the Bowl crowds. Instead of the usual “pops” (there’s that word again…) fare that concertgoers were used to, music of the worst kind, a pandering to lowest common denominator tastes, he chose music that reflected our special legacy as Hollywood studio players. He mined the best music of Erich Korngold, Alfred Newman, Max Steiner, David Raksin, Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith and dozens of other great film composers. He raided the archives of MGM and Warner Bros. studios and saved or rediscovered scores that were in danger of being thrown out like so much recycled trash. He commissioned orchestrators to listen to recordings of scores that had been thrown away, like The Wizard of Oz, and had them reconstruct new scores and parts so that this music wouldn’t be lost to future generations of concertgoers and scholars alike. The more he challenged the orchestra, the harder they worked for him. Here, finally, was someone throwing down a challenge to not only musicians, who are always eager for the new, but for concertgoers as well, whom I had long guessed were tired of the “same-old” when attending summer concerts. He instituted “Movie Night” as an annual event, at first starting with themes and underscores of many wonderful films and gradually growing to a technical tour-de-force which involved John conducting the orchestra “to picture” which brought with it a whole host of technical impossibilities which he was able to tame and pull off every single time.
And something funny happened while we were all busy making music. The public caught on and tickets for the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra were suddenly the hottest seats in town. People loved John’s educational yet humorous asides between pieces, his easy manner of bringing great music to many, the way the orchestra developed its own sound under his baton, how the orchestra was so caught up in making incredible music night after night. If Walt Disney Concert Hall is touted as “Los Angeles’ living room” then John Mauceri made the Hollywood Bowl the city’s biggest “backyard patio”.
All throughout this hectic schedule, which included only two orchestra rehearsals per concert, I rarely saw him lose his temper and his humorous demeanor on the podium always inspired everyone. I rarely heard grumbles or complaints from the players, except of course during contract negotiation times, but those complaints had nothing to do with music. It truly was (or will be after next summer) a special 16 years with this orchestra, under the direction of one man whom we all look up to and respect for lifting the art of this genre of orchestral performance to the highest level it could ever achieve.
Thanks, John, for a once-in-a-lifetime and irreplaceable experience.