Marvin goes POP
Legendary Marvin Hamlisch leads the Pasadena POPS in performing his own hits
By Carl Kozlowski 07/21/2011
After a career in which he has won four Emmys, four Grammys, three Golden Globes, three Oscars, a Tony as well as a Pulitzer Prize, Marvin Hamlisch has certainly become accustomed to being the center of attention. But he probably never expected the whirlwind of controversy he was entering when he accepted his job as the new conductor of the Pasadena POPS.
Arriving in the midst of upheavals that saw longtime conductor Rachael Worby resign after a decade of handling the POPS baton, Jorge Mester resign after a quarter-century at the helm of the Pasadena Symphony, and a battle royale between the California Philharmonic and the POPS over the right to perform at the LA County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, Hamlisch has remained above the fray.
If anything, he was the picture of diplomacy, exuding optimism for the arts in a recent conversation with PW about his conducting debut this Saturday, as he leads the POPS in a concert on the lawn adjacent to the Rose Bowl.
“I don’t feel that this is a competition,” says Hamlisch. “I feel there’s a lot of great music to be played and there’s room for all three orchestras. You don’t have to pick one or the other. I know what I do, and I can’t wait until people actually see me do it.”
Hamlisch’s confidence is born from a lifetime spent hearing and playing music. The son of an accordionist and bandleader, the lifelong New Yorker was playing songs on the radio by ear at 5 and was accepted to the legendary Juilliard School’s Pre-College Division before he turned 7.
From there, his life was a whirlwind: playing piano for Barbra Streisand at her rehearsals, then later playing at parties for movie producer Sam Spiegel. It was through his connection with Spiegel that Hamlisch earned his big break, composing the score for the film “The Swimmer.”
From there, his life has been a collection of impressive musical milestones. He wrote or co-wrote countless classics, including the musical score for Best Picture winner “The Sting” and the theme song for the timeless Robert Redford-Streisand romance “The Way We Were.” He doesn’t compose film scores as often anymore, with his last major film being 2009’s political satire “The Informant!” But Hamlisch has kept himself more than busy with his second career as the director for seven POPS orchestras around the country.
“I work with Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Seattle, San Diego and Dallas besides Pasadena,” explains Hamlisch. “Each symphony has a person I talk to and we sit down and decide what’s best to perform based on budget — we can’t always get a specific star we want because we can’t afford a given star. We get good ideas about what makes a show and if it works. I take it somewhere else.
“So here in Pasadena I’ll be doing shows based on my music, Broadway or film. The whole idea of these things is to show off the wonderful music and have a good time. There’s a lot of humor in the shows.”
Hamlisch’s first love was composing, but he made the move into conducting after his agent told him that one of his idols, George Gershwin, had engaged in both forms of work. Hamlisch recalls: “I thought if it’s good enough for Gershwin, it’s good enough for me.”
Having found success the four biggest arenas of modern entertainment, Hamlisch won’t admit to having a favorite genre. But he does admit that there are key differences between conducting for movies and theatrical musicals.
“The key in films is creating background music to support the story, so that often people don’t notice it’s there,” says Hamlisch. “In a musical, you’re using music and lyrics to keep the story moving, so they’re much more in the forefront, and people are therefore more aware of the music.”
When he’s not working, Hamlisch still keeps himself awash in music. He counts Leonard Bernstein as his composing idol, but says that he can appreciate tunes in many styles, ranging from Earth Wind & Fire to Bach, Beethoven and Michael McDonald. But right now he’s eager to hear the musicians he’s about to work with for the first time: the performers in the Pasadena POPS.
“These are top notch musicians from Pasadena. I haven’t met them yet, and my first rehearsal is next week,” says Hamlisch. “I look forward to showing what a good POPS concert is all about: American music and a good time. That’s what my philosophy is and what it’s all about.”