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A fond farewell for a beloved musical icon

Hollywood Bowl Orchestra's musical director exits with showbiz sparkle.

September 19, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

"We love you, John." The voice rang out loud, clear, brash, emphatic.

"I love you too. But first let me tell you who I am.

"I'm John Mauceri. And this is the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra."

Sunday night may not have been the last time Mauceri delivers this "Heeeeeere's Johnny" line, flashes his smile or offers up wonderfully timed self-deprecating jokes or effusive remarks about music. He promises he'll be back. But Sunday night was the last time he'll have done so as music director of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, which he founded 15 summers ago.

An era really has come to an end. A Hollywood icon is riding off into the sunset, or at least to the North Carolina School of Arts, where he is now chancellor.

The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra was founded in 1991 with three goals. It was intended to reinvent the pops format, turning the fusty Boston Pops model into something more contemporary. As a joint project of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Philips Records, it also was meant to relieve the Philharmonic from weekend pops programs at the Bowl and free that orchestra for summer touring. And -- with the help of recordings and tours of its own -- it could make money.

To a certain extent, it has accomplished all three. But in the end, reimagining the pops format is Mauceri's legacy. Philips dropped out of the picture years ago, and touring is also history.

Still, the HBO thrives. And it thrives for a reason I don't think anyone expected when Mauceri, a then 45-year-old conductor and Leonard Bernstein protege best known for his work in opera and his love for high-end crossover, was asked aboard.

With the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, Mauceri reinvented not only the pops format but to some extent himself. He made it his business to explore and elevate the music of Hollywood, both as history and as a living tradition. But he left plenty of room for the orchestra to survey Broadway. Pops performers, good ones and ghastly ones, got to share the stage indiscriminately. Mauceri premiered a significant body of new and rediscovered music, mostly American. The range was from drivel to, of all things, Schoenberg's astounding "Fanfare for the Hollywood Bowl" (who knew?). He has led his annual concert opera. He had hoped to conduct more standard symphonic repertory, but that was never to be.

Through it all, Mauceri has connected with his audience in a personal, entertaining, dignified and occasionally shamelessly self-serving way. But that is the key quality of a great entertainer. Onstage, Mauceri appears to be so in love with what he is doing, with the music he is playing and with the very act of performing that he reels an audience in.

Sunday's Mauceri farewell was a perfect example of what he does incomparably well, which is give his fans a good time and maybe sneak in a fact or two about music. All of which is to say that he managed not to be upstaged by Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog, and they were awfully funny.

The music may not have been the best of what Mauceri has done over the years, but he began well with "A Fanfare for John at the Bowl," which Elmer Bernstein wrote in the film composer's most engaging "Magnificent Seven" manner in 2004.

Three new pieces were created for the occasion. Danny Elfman's "The Overeager Overture" was undernourished, quick bland music. Richard Rodney Bennett flattened a medieval tune. Songs from Adam Guettel's upcoming musical, "The Princess Bride," were gussied up into a suite of fat orchestral arrangements that hinted at good tunes but revealed little about what they'll be like on the stage.

Members of the Joffrey Ballet trotted out a rock and tried to re-create their museum-piece staging of Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun." Miss Piggy took on Brunnhilde and Peggy Lee, hilariously, and hammed it up with Mauceri, also hilariously.

Mauceri gave the American premiere of a new concert overture he's fashioned from Korngold's score to a World War II feature, "Between Two Worlds," and he reminded us, through an excerpt, that he did something similar for Gershwin with the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers favorite "Shall We Dance." Kristin Chenoweth offered an overeager "Glitter and Be Gay" from Leonard Bernstein's "Candide" and a touching rendition of "You'll Never Know."

"Strike up the Band" struck up fireworks. John in lights.

Mauceri's timing all night was masterful, maintaining his balance of sentiment and wit just right. And it would have remained that way if he hadn't overstayed his welcome for three mushy encores, ending with a syrupy version of "America the Beautiful." But that's John Mauceri -- the good, the bad, the beautiful and the schmaltzy.

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