WHEN he was 10 years old, John Mauceri fell in love with the Broadway musical comedy ``Finian's Rainbow.'' The same year he was moved to tears by the strains of Richard Wagner's opera ``Tristan und Isolde.'' ``If someone told me then that I could choose only a single, musical life path I could never have chosen one over the other,'' says the sandy-haired conductor. If music is the history of human expression, he says, it shouldn't be pigeonholed into classifications that stratify and exclude.
These convictions and his long history of conducting opera, Broadway, orchestral, and theater music across the United States and Europe have made Mr. Mauceri well-suited to head the new Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, as announced here last week. Dedicated to the preservation of American musical heritage from movies to musicals to the concert hall, the new orchestra will be made up from the pool of top freelance musicians who thrive in the entertainment industry here.
Orchestra and conductor will debut at the outdoor amphitheater here in July. A Japan tour begins in late 1991, and the orchestra has a 5-year, 15-record contract with Philips Classics.
``I believe in this century we have created artificial barriers between what we call serious and popular,'' Mauceri told the gathering of reporters just after his appointment was announced. ``I hope this orchestra can stand as something of a model for the next century.''
Currently music director of the Scottish Opera, Mauceri has won worldwide acclaim for several opera productions. including ``La Boheme'' and ``Madama Butterfly'' at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden; ``Turandot'' at Milan's La Scala; and most recently ``Lulu'' and ``The Rake's Progress'' at the San Francisco Opera. He has conducted several top European and American orchestras and been associated with many premi`eres, including the first American performances of Debussy's ``Khamma'' and the first anywhere of the original version of Charles Ives's ``Three Places in New England.''
He has won a Tony award, a Grammy, and won public and critical praise for conducting the Boston Pops on a 1987 national tour of summer festivals.
In a backstage interview with the Monitor, Mauceri (pronounced ``mao-CHAIR-ee'') expanded on his earlier remarks.
``One of my missions in life is to breakdown the unbelievable snobbery that has grown up in this country that if you liked opera, you couldn't like Broadway, and if you liked Broadway you made fun of the stuffy people in ballet,'' he says.
``It happened again in the '50s, when rock-and-roll people were excluded from Broadway, and popular music for the first time became separated from its roots in theater. We now have two generations of people who think of pop music as that which comes out of a studio.''
Mauceri reminds his interviewer that a large portion of the music of Beethoven is based on country dances and popular music of the time. ``But can you imagine someone writing a symphony based on country-and-western music now? So-called serious musicians have separated themselves too far from the roots of people.''
Mauceri and organizers have carefully avoided using the term ``pops'' for the new orchestra. They say it has come to be meaneasy-listening music at summer festivals designed to draw audiences with champagne dinners and picnics. Mauceri wants to broaden the standard classical fare offered at Bowl concerts here and on tour to popularize composers' works previously considered difficult or inaccessible - among them Schoenberg, Hindemith, and Berlioz.
``The ultimate creative act of the conductor is how you put programs together,'' he says. ``The idea is to be educational and entertaining.'' At Scotland's Edinburgh Festival, Mauceri once programmed a restored Kurt Weill score called ``Lady in the Dark,'' which was advertised heavily as a world premi`ere.
To fill the bill he programmed some Richard Strauss waltzes written at the same time (1940) and the second chamber symphony of Arnold Schoenberg - also written at the same time. He also wrote extensive program notes about German music trends.
``So we had three Germans, one in Germany during the war, one in Hollywood and one on Broadway,'' he says. ``It was a big success and the next day a critic wrote, `one good way to make Schoenberg popular is to spring him on an audience because they have no expectation.' I guarantee you if we announced we were doing Schoenberg, nobody would've shown.''
At a Leonard Bernstein festival not long ago, Mauceri programmed not only the late Bernstein's own music, but the music that inspired Bernstein and his teachers, as well as the music he was famous for conducting. At another concert, Mauceri programmed the first half with Mahler, the second - to show his influence - by Mahler's proteg'e, Max Steiner, who composed the music for the movie version of ``Gone With The Wind.'' At a third, he programmed the music of Richard Strauss, followed by three of Strauss's most famous students to trace the legacy of the composer's musical thought.
``His temperament is so inquisitive that he examines his projects from every conceivable angle,'' says Michael Steinberg, artistic director of the Minnesota Orchestra. ``He has incredible breadth and enthusiasm.''
Born in New York City in 1945, Mauceri graduated from Yale and taught there for 15 years. In October, 1985, he won the first Yale University Alumni Arts Award for Outstanding achievement. A proteg'e of Leonard Bernstein, Mauceri was introduced to Los Angeles Philharmonic management by Bernstein 15 years ago.
``Due to the very snobbery he is talking about, Mauceri is taking a chance on being forever labeled non-serious,'' says Jay Decker, professor of music at Witchita State University. Decker recalls the case of Boston Pops' conductor Arthur Fiedler who wanted to conduct great orchestras in serious music but became typecast as the ``nice gentleman in the red fire hat.''
``It's possible that if [Mauceri] proves good enough, he can change people's notions with sheer exposure and education,'' he adds. ``Times and people do change.''