Interview: John Mauceri Conducting His Life Anywhere He Wants To Be

By: Nov. 09, 2017
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Conductor extraordinaire John Mauceri, at 72 years young, has the memory of a straight-A college kid vividly recalling detailed facts of incidents long ago right off the top of his head. The go-to expert on all subjects Leonard Bernstein, John will be conducting BERNSTEIN ON STAGE at the Valley Performing Arts Center (The Soraya) November 17, 2017. John most graciously chatted on the phone with me for an hour from his New York home after just returning from Mexico.

"The first day it feels like autumn - fresh! Anybody going to a football game will probably have a cold by this afternoon."

John will be flying to Los Angeles the Sunday before his November 17th VPAC performance, one of a number of different programs he will conduct as part of the two-year celebration BERNSTEIN AT 100.

And even before going any further, I asked him the correct pronunciation of Maestro Leonard's last name. "It's Bern-st'I'n. Especially in Los Angeles, you have Elmer Bernst'E'n. Like Teddy R'OO'sevelt and Franklin R'O'sevelt. Pronounce the second syllable as if it were German."

The VPAC program BERNSTEIN ON STAGE "specifically, is an attempt to put your arms around his music theatre works. With that in mind, I thought that the most wondrous and wonderful journey for the audience would be to have four soloists who could sing multiple parts, and a chorus, and a smallish orchestra. Start with FANCY FREE and ON THE TOWN, and take them right through his career to 1600 PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE. Each one - a soprano, a mezzo, a tenor and a baritone - has at least one major song or aria, then duets and ensembles. So that you would really travel through Leonard Bernstein's theatre works chronologically from the 1940s to 1976. By selecting these musicals (in case of TROUBLE IN TAHITI, an opera, and FANCY FREE, which is a ballet), the orchestra - playing numbers from within the scores - give you a thumbnail picture of those scores, showing how his music develops. It's fun for sure, sometimes serious, funny, surprising, and ultimately quite uplifting. We end with 'To Make Us Proud' from 1600 PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE, which is about the United States of America."

John curates all Bernstein programs he conducts, as well as, the majority that he doesn't. "Lenny was asking me to do that almost from the very beginning." Bernstein engaged John for his 1973 revival of CANDIDE. "I've been doing this for him since the very beginning because CANDIDE (for the Brooklyn Academy Of Music), with Hal Prince, Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler; Lenny was not present at all for that. He gave me all the music he ever wrote for CANDIDE. I was the one who was suggesting where the different songs could go in the brand new book. When music was needed, that needed new lyrics that Steve Sondheim would provide; I was the person who was suggesting the music under which he would write words. So right from the beginning, I was that person. And, when there was a festival in Tel Aviv, or a festival in London for Leonard Bernstein (and that one, for example, was the London Symphony); I created the programs for the entire festival. He trusted me to do that. He was present for it. He encouraged me from project to project. He trusted me, and the fact that he would ask me to conduct his music while he was present was an extraordinary learning experience, an opportunity you couldn't get in any school. That was remarkable and wonderful and terribly insightful for me what he had to say to me and also how he trusted me so. That's definitely been at the core of my sense of authority, or justification at being a conductor in the first place."

John initially met Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood as part of their conducting program in the summer of 1971. John was one of the select four invited to be a conducting fellow. "When Leonard Bernstein came to Tanglewood, he was not only conducting the Boston Symphony, but he would watch the conducting fellows conduct, comment on us, give us suggestions. That was part of his responsibilities and his commitment to Tanglewood."

Bernstein choose John to assist him in his new production of CARMEN at the Metropolitan Opera in 1972. John believes Leonard Bernstein recognized a kindred spirit in him. "We're both funny. Some people are far more talented than I, and certainly I have had assistants who were more talented, who are more talented than I am. But the thing that I think attracted him was that I could be really serious, but I could also be funny and I could also get the his references since I'd been a Broadway kid. When I was nine years old, I was going to Broadway. My Aunt Jenny brought me to Broadway in 1954 to see BRIGADOON, and then, CAROUSEL with Barbara Cook and Howard Keel. By 10, 11 years old; I was a Broadway expert. I had a column in the high school newspaper before I went to high school -reviewing shows. I wrote the review for the original production of THE MUSIC MAN, for WEST SIDE STORY, for MY FAIR LADY, etc. I was at THE SOUND OF MUSIC with my mom the day after Oscar Hammerstein died. Then my brother, who is older than I am, got a driver's license. We went to see GYPSY together because he could drive into New York for a matinee. I was already very much into writing about it, explaining, understanding it. At the same time, my Aunt Rose was bringing me to the Met. So I was going to the opera and I was going to Broadway. All quite glorious. That's one of the great gifts of having loving aunts and uncles, and living in New York. This was the most amazing school. I was a brand-new computer and what's being uploaded into my hard drive is Birgit Nilsson singing Isolde or Ethel Merman singing Mamma Rose. This is just fundamentally part of my hard-wired computer. It was something Lenny really enjoyed. 'How do you know that?' I would be referencing things that happened before I was born. That made him feel good. That made him feel young, younger. And it gave me tremendous pleasure to be able to talk to somebody who was actually doing the things I had been studying.

"He was the funniest person I ever met. His humor combined with his intelligence made for a giddy mix when you were with him. His brother worked at the New Yorker and therefore, jokes would come immediately out of the New Yorker experiences. There would be long jokes, new jokes. Lenny told those long jokes, and the requirement was that they would have to take at least five-to-ten minutes to be a joke. In general, being with him, you laughed a lot. We'd have serious conversations about the world, about politics, and, of course, about music. But it was wrapped around the sense of fun in life. I miss as much as anything about him, that he was a funny, funny man. Unless you were in deep with him, people would never know that. He was a joy. As I've said a number of times, 'Where he was, was where you wanted to be.' In my book Maestros and Their Music, he's the second most important subject of that book about conductors. Of course, I am the number one because I'm telling you about my experiences Not because I'm better than anyone else, but because I'm writing the book. But Bernstein appears on every other page in that book and there are a lot of anecdotes about him in there and rightly so.

"When I met him in 1971, and then he hired me in '72; he paid me - his office paid me - a $1,000 to assist him in CARMEN at Met. That's a long time from the moment he walked into Tanglewood and I was there, to sitting at his bedside the Thursday night before he passed away in 1990. That does comes to more than 19 years, it starts to veer on 20 years. That's a gigantic chunk of a person's life. We would be together for so many hours. We would be rehearsing, I would be conducting. He would be listening. He would be chatting with me. There'd be dinners at his house with his family and my family. Our son Ben is his godson. Lenny would write a poem to him or write a song every year for his birthday. It wasn't just 'Happy Birthday.' There's a lot that we, as a family, and I, as a person, experienced with Leonard Bernstein that no one else could have."

Asked the Sophie's Choice question of which of Bernstein's work John would consider resting at the top of Bernstein's legacy: "It has to WEST SIDE STORY because it would be foolish to answer anything else. WEST SIDE STORY is the enduring masterpiece without question. Goes beyond its time, as powerful and effective today, maybe more so than in 1957. It is a moment in which Lenny's theatrical musical voice has reached a level of complexity that still maintains comprehensibility, with memorable melodies and complex rhythms that perfectly capture the dramatic intent of the libretto. And I think at the time, he was also working very productively with a number of other geniuses who all balanced each other ultimately to create WEST SIDE STORY. So it would have to be WEST SIDE STORY. His fame will always rest on that."

Amongst the many lessons John learned from Leonard Bernstein, it was his words of encouragement that has always stuck with him. After a particularly crowd-pleasing performance of FIDELIO at the Metropolitan Opera, Bernstein came back stage and complimented John, "You must be wildly happy to know how very good you." But the one notable compliment he received from Bernstein, John finds very hard to forget. "In the middle of rehearsals at La Scala for his opera A QUIET PLACE which I was conducting and help editing and rewriting into a three-act, 'You doing a great job... so far.'"

Anyone lucky to have attended a performance that John has conducted will find John to be one of the most charming, approachable conductors on stage. John Mauceri actually converses with his audience with witty tidbits of musical knowledge. "I never spoke to an audience when I began conducting, which was 50 years ago. It came as a kind of necessity. John Williams cancelled a national tour of the Boston Symphony in the 1980s. He came down with flu, his back went out and he had bronchitis."

Anne Parsons, then assistant manager of the Boston Symphony, called John Mauceri to step in for John Williams. "They hoped that by the time it hit the Hollywood Bowl that John would be better and he could do the Bowl and he would do San Francisco. I thought about it. I'm great friend with Anne Parsons. Quite frankly, it seemed like a reasonable thing to do. Financially, it was a surprise. I flew to Boston to look at all this music because I was going to have one three-hour rehearsal to rehearse two programs. I changed some things in the program, some things I knew I couldn't learn. I couldn't learn 160 minutes of music in 24 hours.

"I starting talking in New Jersey because I knew that people had bought tickets to see John Williams, and instead they got John 'what's his name.' The program was different. I said something after the first piece, but I probably was very stilted. I probably sounded like Dudley Do-Right. With the worst thing that any conductor can say after doing an introduction, say, 'And I hope you do enjoy it.' And whenever I hear, 'I hope you do enjoy it,' I cringe, because, of course, you hope they do enjoy it. 'That's interesting, maestro. Shut up!' We got to Wolf Trap. We played the overture and the concert master looked at me, 'We need to tune.' It must have been about 98 degrees that night with 100% humidity. So I turned to the audience - absolute true story. I indicated the oboist to tune. I turned to the audience and I said, 'In case, you're wondering why we're doing that, if you figure what's happening to our hair right now, that's what's happening to our strings of our violins.' I saw the audience reach up to touch their hair and burst into laughter. And that's when it occurred to me that you could teach and entertain at the same time. If you just imagined that the people out there were your Aunt Marie or Uncle Jim. Just talk to them as you have always been talking to your relatives."

Of course, as was custom in John's childhood (and parts of various cultures today), neighbors and close friends of your parents were usually addressed as "Aunt" or "Uncle," as opposed to "Mr." or "Mrs." So speaking about aunts and uncles, it was John's next-door neighbors, Aunt Tessie and Uncle Eddie, who first provided John with his first performance venue - their living room with a piano. John, just a four-year-old, took to the keys like a duck to water, playing whatever songs he heard. "My parents started missing me, so they bought a piano. I would just sit there and figure it out. My grandfather, my father's father (Baldassare Mauceri), was a violinist and a music teacher, and he was a conductor of hotel orchestras, which I later found out. He was my first teacher. It was very hard to get me to read music because I just needed someone to play it, and I would play it. Sometimes I would put the music on the stand to pretend to be reading it. It wasn't until high school that a chorus master of the high school chorus heard me playing La Boheme in a practice room and noticed that there was no music in front of me. He came home with me on the bus to talk to my mother and said, 'You cannot let this child continue on without reading. I will volunteer to teach him to actually have to read music.' And that was good as I was already writing, and it's hard work to notate things when you're really not quite sure how to do it. I've always been more about hearing. Not that I don't see. I actually have a very strong visual imagination when I hear music. I'm grateful that I came to it that way. It's in my fingers and in my ears, and not about seeing black circles on five lines, that came later."

In closing out our hour on the phone, I cheekily asked John if there was any particular book who would recommend conducting neophytes to read - any particular book with the publication date of November 7, 2017. John chuckled! "Really, conducting is much about doing. One of the reasons why it's so difficult to 'study,' you can't practice in your room. You can study your music. You can learn and have an idea of what you want. But the actual people making the sounds are these precious musicians who have to feel that you're worthy to stand in front of them You have win that respect one way or another. (George) Solti said, 'You always have to be better than any orchestra you conduct.'"

John's parting words of reality for those aiming to lead an orchestra, "As conductors, we are temporary. We are ephemeral. We interpret other people's music.

"You could argue that my experiences have been the most varied of any conductor ever. It's rare for a conductor to say he conducted three new productions of Alban Berg's LULU and conducted Madonna in the movie of Evita. I've conducted on Broadway, I've conducted at the Met and La Scalla and I've conducted by this point, just about every major orchestra in the world. I've worked with many living composers. It's a wonderful time for me, because I'm 72. I'm the age Leonard Bernstein was when he died. I turned 72 in September, and there's a moment when you go, 'This is very interesting.' I'm in a very different place from him. I also was in a different place from him. You don't measure yourself against anybody else, that's useless. But there something that says, 'This is a very beautiful moment.'"

For available tickets to experience Maestro Mauceri nimbly work his baton while enlightening you with entertaining tidbits on classic Bernstein musical theatre works, log onto

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