Hit play below to listen to our Arts Alive feature with John Mauceri discussing Leonard Bernstein.
The New West Symphony is treading the boards this weekend with performances of excerpts of every stage work that Leonard Bernstein ever wrote. And they’ve snagged John Mauceri, a Bernstein protégé, collaborator, and friend to not only conduct, but design the program, a big collaboration, produced by the Valley Performing Arts Center, which also features the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, soprano Suzanna Guzman, and actor Davis Gaines.
“I used to do that for Lenny himself,” Mauceri told me in a recent interview, “because during the 19 years that I not only worked with him, but as I’ve said to some people, he hired me, it’s not that I just worked with him because a lot of people liked to go to his rehearsals. But the difference was I got to edit his music, he would ask me to conduct his music for him, and then sometimes be music director of Bernstein festivals.
“So, the first time I conducted a lot of the music that I’ll be conducting with the New West Symphony was for Leonard Bernstein’s 60th birthday in 1978 and that was pretty amazing because I had the part of the concert that had to do with all of his Broadway music, so I was conducting music from On the Town and Wonderful Town and Mass. It’s really fun to go back to this and create a program that will give people Lenny’s journey from the very beginning when he seemed so spontaneous and able to just about do anything and it seemed like the joy in him was in every note.
“As we get further toward the last works from West Side Story and Candide which are both fun and terribly serious and uplifting and sad then we get to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue which I think will be a surprise to most people because there’s so much great music in it and it’s basically unknown. So, it should be a great journey for everyone.”
Conductor John Mauceri told me he’ll also share stories and anecdotes about Bernstein with the audience throughout the show. For example, the moment he shared with Leonard Bernstein that the LA Phil was creating the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra for him. I asked Mauceri about that moment.
BL: Leonard Bernstein passed away in 1990. The following year was your first with the orchestra created for you here at the Hollywood Bowl. I’m sure the machinations of the creation of that orchestra were already well in progress years prior to ’91. Was Bernstein aware of what was being built for you here in Hollywood?
Mauceri: Well, yes, actually. What a good question. The Thursday night before he died, I got the phone call that I ought to go to the Dakota and see him. And I knew that that couldn’t be good news. So, I went and I sat at the foot of his bed and we had a wonderful chat and I told him about the creation of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He was so happy about that.
“And then he passed away.
“So, he died on a Sunday. Then, on the Tuesday was his memorial service at the Dakota. Then, I got on a plane to Los Angeles because on the Wednesday was the press announcement of the creation of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. I mean, I was still in my black suit, changed the tie, and I remember mostly talking about Leonard Bernstein and about his ability to teach.
“That’s when I committed this unknown orchestra—which, actually didn’t have anybody in it at the time—to playing the music written in Los Angeles as a fundamental part of its repertory, as a reason for it to exist.”
Mauceri was music director of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra from 1991 until 2006. During his tenure, he conducted more than 300 concerts there with a total audience reach of more than four million people. Both of those numbers are Hollywood Bowl records.
This weekend, Mauceri returns to Southern California for these Bernstein 100 celebration concerts with the New West Symphony. Performances take place Friday evening at Valley Performing Arts Center, Saturday evening at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, and Sunday afternoon at the Oxnard Performing Arts Center. Find out more here.