This week's opening of the Hollywood Bowl season marks the 10th anniversary of the venue's namesake orchestra, the pops-oriented ensemble known not only for fireworks spectaculars but also for its silky-voiced conductor, John Mauceri.
Mauceri has led the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra since 1991, when it was created as a complement to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which also makes the Bowl its summer home. Despite the impending milestone, he's not feeling very celebratory.
On the phone from New York, his base for most of the year, Mauceri, 55, reflects on "10 years of achievement"--and considerable travail. Management has never understood the potential of his orchestra, he says, and gives it no respect. Among his other concerns: Touring and recording, part of the original vision, have been relegated to the past; the number of Hollywood Bowl Orchestra concerts has been pared down; and when it comes to publicity, the Philharmonic always takes precedence.
Though Ernest Fleischmann, the Los Angeles Philharmonic's managing director from 1969 to 1997, is "brilliant," Mauceri says, the executive pigeonholed him into mainstream fare. Mauceri dismisses Willem Wijnbergen, who took over in March 1998, as "a marketing man." And Deborah Borda, his current boss? No problems yet, he maintains. Still, he's far from satisfied with the status quo.
"We've always taken a back seat, existing only when the Phil permits us to exist, when they're on tour or unable to perform," he says. "[They see their] mission as keeping us alive, but at a level where we're not a threat."
Called for comment, Borda fields the complaints with equanimity. "John has had his bumps with Ernest and his bumps with Willem," she observes. "But, then, it's hard being an artist."
"Looking back, we were crazy. We should be given a star on the Walk of Fame for every performance we did," says Mauceri (pronounced MAU-cherry).
That's his assessment of summer 1991, the first season for the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. The band was Fleischmann's brainchild, a way of easing the load on overworked and under-rehearsed Philharmonic musicians who then played the Bowl four days a week.
When the job was offered to Mauceri, he accepted on the spot.
"I would be leading a new orchestra celebrating the legacy of Los Angeles, Hollywood and Broadway, which no one else was doing," he explains. "And, unlike many pops orchestras, the group would be composed of studio musicians rather than players from the symphony orchestra grumbling because they hated the repertory. The venue, too, was a tremendous lure. With a seating capacity of 18,000, I knew we could take risks and still be hugely financially successful."
By all accounts, Mauceri was tailor-made for the job. A onetime music director of the Scottish Opera, the Washington Opera and Carnegie Hall's American Symphony Orchestra, he had a knowledge of film composers as well as credits on Broadway ("Candide," "On Your Toes") and television ("PBS's 1987 Gala of the Stars").
Moreover, for 18 years, Mauceri had collaborated with Leonard Bernstein, editing his music, conducting premieres and receiving a crash course in charisma. Like his mentor, Mauceri turns around to address the audience, establishing a sense of intimacy. Cultivated comments are cut with a brand of humor he characterizes as "Italian, Jewish and Ivy League smartass."
Getting through the first summer required a minor miracle, Mauceri maintains. His orchestra was an untried bunch with just a few rehearsals behind it. And because the Philharmonic has no library of arrangements, each concert had to be created from scratch.
"The Bowl orchestra employs many of the best studio musicians in town," Martin Bernheimer, then The Times' music critic, wrote in August 1991. "They play very well as individuals, and, with proper coaxing, could play with finesse as an ensemble." Praising Mauceri's "clear and sympathetic command," he called him a "charming and irrepressible raconteur who, thank goodness, doesn't seem particularly good at being serious."
Such comments, Mauceri says, reflect the bias of classical music critics. "They come to review music they hate before they arrive," he says. "My reputation has been hurt because my concerts are compartmentalized as 'pops."'
Early in the decade, the Bowl orchestra recorded "Hollywood Dreams" and "The Gershwins in Hollywood" for Philips Classics, part of a 15-CD, five-year deal. The approximately 100-member group toured successfully in Japan and South America and, later, performed in two Emmy-winning PBS broadcasts originating from the venue. Musically, too, the orchestra evolved. "It's extremely capable," says Fleischmann, now a classical music consultant and director of the annual Ojai Music Festival.
Soon after Mauceri's arrival, however, sparks began to fly. The issue was programming, he explains, a difference in artistic perspective. He was trying to break down barriers between the pops and classical genres, making occasional forays into rarely performed material and reintroducing opera and dance to the Bowl, which Fleischmann had all but eliminated. Fleischmann, he contends, favored the well-worn formula that had traditionally filled the seats.
"There's a fundamental feeling that the winter audience is the musical-loving, serious one, while the Bowl audience needs to be educated, played down to a bit," Mauceri says. "I had to argue that people want to listen to a piece for more than five minutes. I wanted to push the envelope instead of playing Mickey Mouse's birthday party."
Fleischmann confirms the tug of war. But his decisions came from knowing the audience, he says, not from an effort to "dumb down." Most Hollywood Bowl ticket-holders are there for a relaxed, convivial experience, he says. Very few are classical music aficionados.
As for dance and opera performances, he says, star power was needed to make them profitable, and that was hard to line up. Mauceri cleverly introduced Act 2 of "The Nutcracker" and "Swan Lake" by integrating them into the crowd-pleasing Tchaikovsky Spectacular, Fleischmann says.
"John had wonderful ideas, and we managed to lift the quality of the [pops] repertoire," he acknowledges. "But what brings people in on weekends is stuff people can hum to--and visual effects. If you can find a good enough reason to link music to fireworks, you're pretty sure to have a good box office. We had to be careful programming the Bowl because it helped subsidize the winter season."
According to Mauceri, the debate came to a head during Wijnbergen's brief tenure. The former Philharmonic managing director, who left the orchestra in 1999 over unspecified disagreements with the board, declined to comment.
Insiders say that Wijnbergen had even stronger convictions than Fleischmann about keeping pops and classical music apart. He canceled a September 1998 Bowl orchestra performance of "Turandot" starring Jane Eaglen, recasting her in an evening titled "Opera Goes to the Movies."
"Willem's a snob," says Mauceri. "But, then, most of the people in classical music are snobs--I know because I'm one myself. He seemed to feel it was inappropriate for the Hollywood Bowl [Orchestra] to play opera, not realizing that most of our musicians play in the L.A. Chamber Orchestra and Opera Pacific. He looked at us as a 'product': ketchup, Heinz 57. Not gourmet but the family pack."
Lindsey Nelson, general manager of Bowl programming at the time, had a bird's-eye view of the tussle. At its core was bad chemistry, he says. Mauceri is "prickly, easily offended," while Wijnbergen "can be blunt" and "was all about change."
"It didn't take much for John to go from feeling underappreciated to abused," says Nelson, currently general manager of the downtown summer concert series Grand Performances. "John felt challenged and under scrutiny, but so did every other member of the Philharmonic staff."
Mauceri's five-year contract came to an end in 1996 and was renewed for three years. For a stretch, he was renewed a year at a time, until Borda gave him a three-year package last summer.
"Willem put me on trial for a year, and that was very difficult," says Mauceri. "After all those years and all that success, I found myself auditioning. There have been questions internally about whether they wanted to keep me."
"I've banged my head against a few walls," Mauceri concedes. Nevertheless, he's still standing. Whatever his grievances, he says, he plans on sticking around.
"I love the orchestra; it's like family to me," he says. "We've had thousands of hours of concerts and recording and crowds of cheering people. Though it would have been easier with a different level of support, you can't be disappointed in that history."
For the 2001 season, the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra will play 18 times, including a "Rule Britannia!" evening with singer Charlotte Church, a concert adaptation of "Show Boat," "Don't Touch That Dial, It's TV Night at the Bowl" and, to his great satisfaction, "Aida," with Alexandra Mark.
The challenge, he says, is thinking creatively within the parameters set by the Philharmonic.
"We have to get inside each title and make it as different as possible," he says, referring to programming concepts repeated year after year. "Our 11th annual Great American Concert will deal with heroes and superheroes--political, military, immigrants. I'm programming Copland's 'Lincoln Portrait,' Bernstein's 'White House Cantata' as well as music from 'Superman,' 'Indiana Jones.' We'll also play the world premiere of a new 'Batman' suite. I hope my concerts throw down the gauntlet."
Still, fireworks remain part of the package--part of Friday night's second annual Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame Gala, with Stevie Wonder, Bonnie Raitt, John Raitt, Marilyn Horne and Eric Idle. And they're indispensable, of course, to next week's Fourth of July show featuring Tony Award-winning Kristin Chenoweth and baritone Jubilant Sykes.
Although she appreciates Mauceri's passion, says Borda, his grievances must be put in perspective.
"My job is to keep my eyes on the prize and the larger picture," says the executive, who joined the Philharmonic in January 2000. "I wish it were as simple as the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, but this is a complicated institution."
She's loosening up the division between the two orchestras, Borda says. There are no "doctrinaire lines" that can't be crossed. Still, when it comes to programming, not even L.A. Philharmonic music director Esa-Pekka Salonen has a free hand. "While I'm supportive of Mauceri's agenda, I want to play to his strengths," she says. "Would I let the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra put on a concert version of 'Parsifal' or the 'Rites of Spring'? No. But I gave Mauceri the go-ahead to do 'Aida' because he can do a good job and it means a lot to him. Besides, it's a Verdi celebration year."
That the Bowl is a "gold mine" for the Philharmonic reduces risk-taking, Mauceri claims. That financial analysis is a misperception, the organization says. Because of the Bowl's size, it accounts for two-thirds of all Philharmonic tickets sold. Still, it generates less than $2 million of the $50-million annual operating budget, the group's marketing executives say.
"A gold mine? That's a myth--like the fabled golden cities of the Incas," Borda retorts. "Vast coffers of money aren't secreted away. We employ 400 seasonal employees [at the Bowl]. Marketing prices have soared. It's very expensive to do business there."
Touring and recording are additional thorns in Mauceri's side. Bowl orchestra tours wouldn't cost the Philharmonic anything, he insists; presenters would pick up the tab. Touring is the most expensive thing an orchestra does, Borda counters. Because fees cover barely a third of the cost, lining up sponsors is essential. And given the severe decline in classical music record sales, she says, labels are forking out less. Fleischmann put out feelers for a Hollywood Bowl Orchestra record deal after the Philips arrangement ended, but, he says, no one expressed interest.
Outside the Bowl, Mauceri--an avowed workaholic--allows for no downtime. Among his activities: teaching 20th century American music at Yale, serving as music director at the Pittsburgh Opera and, since October, hosting a radio show weeknights at 8 on KMZT-FM (105.1). How his stretch at the Bowl will play out, he says, remains to be seen.
"Deborah has described me as the conductor of the 21st century," he says. "But I'm not sure anyone will let me be that. Though I respect her enormously, I can only lead when permitted."
Until then, he deadpans, "I could have a therapist on both coasts."