As John Mauceri wraps up 16 seasons as principal conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra this weekend, he will be remembered not just as a charismatic maestro whom audiences loved, but as a champion of classic film scores who commissioned dozens of restorations that enabled the music to be played in concert.
“John is our great historian,” says “Lord of the Rings” composer Howard Shore. “He’s the one who dug through the old scores and revived them. He will find a Franz Waxman score or a Miklos Rozsa score and bring it back to life. What John has done is to preserve the past.”
When Mauceri was offered the helm of a new L.A. ensemble in 1990 (what Philips Records called the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra) he envisioned not a Boston Pops-style group that would play “light classics,” but rather a symphony of highly skilled, versatile Hollywood studio musicians who would focus much of their time on music written in L.A.: movie music.
“I was going to Los Angeles and to the people’s concert hall,” Mauceri recalls, “the venue which was built by the taxpayers’ money. I believe that concerts should speak to the public you are playing to.”
He had already begun studying and performing music that had been banned by Hitler and Stalin, and music of composers who fled the Nazi tyranny. Many of them wound up in L.A., and many wrote film music: Erich Wolfgang Korngold (“The Sea Hawk”), Waxman (“Sunset Blvd.”), Miklos Rozsa (“Ben-Hur”) and others.
“These men, who had to escape Fascist Europe, not only survived but transcended the situation and wrote music that more people heard than would have heard their music had the war not happened.” Unfortunately,
their film music — often as complex and powerful as any concert music being written at the time — was dismissed by the establishment and rarely performed in concert away from the films.
“I had this overwhelming sense of injustice toward these extraordinarily great composers, and then I started to confront this awful snobbery toward them,” Mauceri says.
He began the process of unearthing, restoring and editing music that had previously only been recorded once on a studio soundstage and then forgotten or, in some cases, destroyed.
Since 1991, Mauceri has commissioned or personally assembled nearly 100 such pieces, including an 11-minute suite from the Harold Arlen songs and Herbert Stothart score for “The Wizard of Oz,” a 25-minute symphony from Alex North’s “Cleopatra,” a 15-minute distillation of Bronislau Kaper’s “Mutiny on the Bounty,” a 14-minute suite from Nino Rota’s “Godfather” films, Bernard Herrmann’s definitive 15-minute “Psycho: A Narrative for String Orchestra” and the entire 80-minute score from Waxman’s “Sunset Blvd.”
“You feel a little bit like Indiana Jones,” Mauceri notes. “There’s something enormously satisfying about this, because it is discovering and following trails.”
Mauceri has especially fond memories of Rozsa, who believed he had been forgotten when, in 1994, Mauceri invited the 87-year-old composer to a Bowl rehearsal of the newly restored overture from his “Ben-Hur” score. “I knelt down by his wheelchair. He was blind. I put my hand on his hand and said, ‘Was that all right, Dr. Rozsa?’ And he said, ‘It’s overwhelming.’ ”
Knowing the scores
Leopold Stokowski led a Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra in 1945-46, and conducted “movie nights” of film music at that time. Alfred Newman, Johnny Green and Henry Mancini often conducted film music at the Bowl throughout the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. But it was Mauceri who made it a weekend staple, playing the music live to film clips projected on the Bowl’s giant screens.
Mauceri also accurately predicted the popularity of certain scores. He debuted David Arnold’s music from “Independence Day” on the day the film opened in 1996. He convinced Shore to condense 12 hours of “Lord of the Rings” music into a two-hour symphony, which has now been played more than 100 times by symphony orchestras around the world. (Mauceri will conduct it in Leipzig in January, and tickets are already sold out.)
“There has been a slow realization that perhaps this music should be treated with the kind of respect with which we treat any music,” Mauceri says with some pride.
Mauceri’s work with the Bowl has led to even more direct involvement with movies: He conducted “That’s Entertainment! III” in 1994 and the film version of “Evita” in 1996.
Says composer Marc Shaiman: “His love for film music and his charming stage presence have been a perfect addition to the L.A. concert scene. Hearing him conduct my overture to ‘That’s Entertainment! III’ and the end-title music from ‘The American President’ at the Bowl was the most fun.”
Mauceri recalls discussing the possibilities of the Bowl assignment with his mentor, Leonard Bernstein, just days before the legendary conductor died in 1990. They brainstormed about a program that would contain Mahler’s Fourth symphony on the first half and Max Steiner’s “Gone With the Wind” on the second, about which Bernstein — ever the innovator — expressed enthusiasm. “I think he would have been pleased,” says Mauceri.