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Marvin Hamlisch’s long and varied career came to an abrupt end in 2012, when the composer/conductor died unexpectedly at 68. Just days before his demise, Hamlisch signed a contract to become principal conductor of the Philly Pops—one of the many projects left unrealized by his sudden passing. The group he was set to lead pays tribute to the man and his music in Hamlisch: With Love, a weekend of concerts at Verizon Hall that offers an overview of his seven-decade career.
The Manhattan Mozart
Music director Todd Ellison considered Hamlisch a mentor and spoke warmly of him from the stage. I usually abhor the chattiness of most Pops concerts, but it was enriching to learn the particulars of the composer’s colorful life. A Manhattan Mozart, he became the youngest pupil, at age 6, ever accepted by The Juilliard School.
By his teenage years, Hamlisch was selling songs to Lesley Gore and accompanying his best friend, Liza Minnelli, on her first record, a private pressing made as a gift to her mother. That would be Judy Garland. The product of a modest upbringing, Hamlisch composed his first film score while still living in the one-bedroom apartment he grew up in, which he shared with his parents and sister.
A flourish for film
Snatches of that score—a 1968 adaptation of John Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer”—are heard in a sweeping orchestration that shows off what the Pops does best. Hamlisch was still a young man, though clearly a talented one, when he scored The Swimmer. The music blends pure Romanticism with a period-specific pop sound, suggesting Hamlisch’s status as a musical polyglot, and lush textures conjured by Ellison from the podium do much to circumvent a certain facile quality in the writing.
Despite a devotion to the Broadway musical that continued up until his final days—he died while putting the finishing touches on a stage version of The Nutty Professor—his most enduring contributions to the canon come in the form of film music. Perhaps not coincidentally, these were often the most satisfying selections of the concert. From the piano, Ellison elegantly finessed the Scott Joplin rags that Hamlisch repurposed for The Sting, finding a fine duet partner in clarinetist Joseph Smith. It was interesting to hear these motifs return in “Nobody Does It Better,” the celebrated Carly Simon tune that Hamlisch wrote for The Spy Who Loved Me.
The evening had a blue-chip soloist in the form of Ashley Brown, who made her name as a star of Disney’s long-running Mary Poppins on Broadway. Secure throughout its range, with an attractively dusky timbre, her voice soared effortlessly into every corner of Verizon Hall. She was at her best when selling some of Hamlisch’s schlockier tunes—like “I Still Believe in Love,” from the 1979 musical They’re Playing Our Song. A total product of its moment, it sounds like a self-help book set to elevator music.
At other points, Brown favored vocal dynamism over interpretive depth. Perhaps someone could have told her that “Disneyland,” from the underrated Smile, is actually a melancholy song, not meant to be given the full American Idol triumph. And she passed over much of the sly humor in “No More,” from the 1993 musical adaptation of The Goodbye Girl.
Throughout the evening, Brown and Ellison were joined by four undergraduates from the Boyer College of Music and Dance at Temple University. All four—Jordan Hayes, Alexa Joseph, Isabel Robin, and Alana Robinson—are clearly promising. They’re also clearly still students. I’ll let their professors weigh in on the strengths and weaknesses of their performances.
A loving tribute
Devoting an entire evening to one composer certainly allows the audience to glean the strengths and weaknesses of that artist’s oeuvre. Without question, Hamlisch could write a tune that would lodge itself in your ear for weeks. But once that tune vanishes, you’re unlikely to be left remembering or reflecting on it. No one is likely to confuse his music with that of Stephen Sondheim, or even with more probing contemporary composers like Michael John LaChiusa.
My companion at the concert compared Hamlisch’s music to a meal made of appetizers—something that sounds like a great idea, but ultimately leaves you hungry for more. There’s truth in that. But Hamlisch: With Love is also, ultimately, a loving tribute by the Pops to one of their own.
What, When, Where
Hamlisch: With Love. Todd Ellison, conductor. Ashley Brown, soloist. The Philly Pops. Through January 19, 2020, at the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall, 300 S. Broad St., Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or phillypops.org.
The Kimmel Center is an ADA-compliant venue. Patrons can purchase wheelchair seating or loose chairs online, by calling Patron Services at (215) 893-1999, or by emailing [email protected]. With advance notice, Patron Services can provide options for personal care attendants, American Sign Language, Braille tickets and programs, audio descriptions, and other services.
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