Only Partly Used
Memories around John Mauceri come to mind as he begins his final season as the Hollywood Bowl’s Man of Much Music. They start back in 1973, as the Yalie with the golden curls, still John MOSS-ery to his classmates, is summoned to Brooklyn Academy by Leonard Bernstein to conduct the revised and much-improved Candide, which Harold Prince’s restaging had rescued from its stodgy beginnings. They advance to 1991, as the self-renamed Maestro mow-CHAY-ry charms an Osaka audience on New Year’s Eve with a few memorized Japanese phrases and a program of spellbinding pops by his brand-new Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, ending with a clap-along “Stars and Stripes Forever.” They swing down to Costa Mesa around the same time, where Wagner-deprived Los Angeles operaphiles have journeyed to hear Mauceri pull the minor-league Opera Pacific through a major-league reading of Die Walküre, and to wonder why operatic conducting of that quality never seemed to happen with our own company. (Those were the days of Peter Hemmings’ leadership, remember, when the podium at Chandler was held down – if that’s the term – by lightweights like Randall Behr and Lawrence Foster. Things are better now.)
Mauceri’s 16 years with the Bowl Orchestra – still, as it always was, an aggregation of top-quality studio freelancers whose roster can change from week to week – has considerably raised the musical stature of the place. For the weekend programs, which have been his principal territory, he has greatly enriched the concept of the light-music concert, especially through his work in what you might call Hollywood musicology. He has exhumed (sometimes literally, from tons of discarded manuscript pages) scores from past films and reconstructed a whole genre of film sound as it was practiced by the generation of big-name composers, most of them Hitler escapees, who flourished here in the days of great studio orchestras. By the standards of the European symphonic repertory – Brahms, Mahler, those guys – the surging hearts-aflame concoctions by the likes of Korngold, Rózsa and Steiner come in a few notches down on the cultural pole. Mauceri’s job was to select the nearly forgotten content from choice pages of what turns out to be a huge amount of music, clean it up some and fling it forth, with some immensely congenial commentary, in the glittering showplace in Cahuenga Pass – a perfect matchup, in case you hadn’t noticed. Bless him for that; he came to us from another world – Yale, New York, several European halls and opera houses – and stayed long enough to confront us with the beauty and, yes, the musical value of some of our own culture. And I will take a large sundae cup of Erich Korngold’s score for Kings Row, or the cello concerto he wrote for Bette Davis’ boyfriend in Deception, over half a dozen Richard Strauss tone poems I could name.
Without saying it in so many words, Mauceri has advanced the notion of film-plus-music as some kind of art form. The Bowl – the marvelous expansion of the perfect movie palace, and so what if there’s no roof – has been his lab. Those wonderful nights when he puts together collections of movie scenes, on the big screens with their music played live, are like panoplies of masterpieces, and Mauceri – in his selections and in the warmth and wisdom of his talks – has always sustained the impression that these unique blendings of sight and sound contain within them the potential of great art. That one facet of his Bowl repertory, I think I will especially miss.
John of Opera
But there is more to Mauceri, and I get the feeling that, either by accident or by design, we have missed out on a portion of his good works. In Andrew Porter’s collected writings – he was critic at The New Yorker before Alex Ross – I read, with pangs of jealousy, accounts of Mauceri conducting Verdi’s La Forza del Destino at the Met and, would you believe, Wagner’s Rienzi in San Antonio. Why not here? It was Mauceri who led the premiere of Andrew Imbrie’s Angle of Repose in San Francisco, the most deserving piece of all the music created for the American Bicentennial. I absorb all this, and get the feeling that we’re letting him leave us with the best of him unexplored. Oh well, he’s only 61, and there’s even a little gold still in those curls.
In Europe, Mauceri’s reputation rests primarily on his operatic conducting: at the Scottish Opera, where Bernstein and Kurt Weill as well as Wagner have figured in his repertory, and in Torino and other major houses on the Continent. In Los Angeles, his operatic stage has been the Bowl, where his performances have been delivered without actual staging but with a remarkable amount of stage verisimilitude even so – helped, of course, by the new video screens, which can be a nuisance in some circumstances but which at least allow us to share the vocal sufferings of heroes and villains. Last year’s opera night consisted of great chunks of Wagner, and as I remember it, the surge and thrust of the performance was quite decently simulated.
Last Sunday there was Puccini’s Tosca, music very much at home, of course, on a stage where movie music sometimes reigns. Mauceri presided, a perfect host; I would entrust any operatic newcomer to his witty, welcoming narration of the goings-on, and the further elucidation of his strong, eloquent performance. The sheer fakery of the music blended nicely with the fakery of the performing circumstances; it was all just perfectly, in a word, swell. Patricia Racette sang the Tosca; the Butterfly in the Robert Wilson staging here earlier this season, she’s a brainy, attractive singer of no particularly ravishing voice but a wide range of usefulness – a latter-day Dorothy Kirsten, say. Frank Porretta, second in a line of adequate tenors of that name, sang the Cavaradossi with its basic brutality intact and nothing more. (Is there anything more?) James Morris, the Wotan-turned-Scarpia, brought a tone of authority, plus a few that sounded rather scraped. The real drama lay, to nobody’s surprise, with Mauceri and – this time – the Philharmonic itself. They deserved each other.?