By Ted AYALA
Marvin Hamlisch, the Pasadena Pops Orchestra’s new principal conductor, cut the ribbon on his inaugural season with the Pops on Saturday night in a stylish concert played under the shade of the Rose Bowl. The program beckoned the audience to follow Hamlisch along in a sentimental journey that shined a spotlight on his roots as a composer, his formative influences, his best loved music – and the works of composers his mother preferred over his.
Recalling an appearance his mother had made with him years ago on the Mike Douglas Show, he recounted her blunt answer when she was asked who her favorite composer was.
“Richard Rodgers!” she exclaimed. Seeing her son’s exasperated look she tried to explain herself by saying, “Well, I can’t lie.”
One after another, Hamlisch preceded each work on the program with humorous anecdotes, self deprecating jokes and a winning dose of charm that kept the program lively and the audience smiling. Indeed, the feeling conveyed was that of a favorite uncle stopping by your house for a visit.
Of course, none of this would mean very much without good music and musicianship. There were no disappointments: the union of Hamlisch and the Pops is looking to be a very happy one.
Opening with the stirring overture from the musical “Gypsy,” the concert found the Pops soaring at their best. Whether they were in the midst of the lush string writing of Robert Russell Bennett’s suite of Jerome Kern’s best loved melodies, or the tart wind colors of Hamlisch’s arrangement of Scott Joplin tunes for the film “The Sting,” both orchestra and conductor radiated a twinkling delight.
Not content with merely playing some of his best known works, Hamlisch also engaged the audience in a “Rent-A-Composer” segment where he would improvise tunes based on original title suggestions from the audience. Taking off on some peculiar titles, Hamlisch’s wit – both verbal and musical – was ever at the ready, sketching pithy songs that cracked up his audience.
But it was the selection of his scores and songs – the theme from “Ice Castles,” the song “The Way We Were,” and overture from the musical “A Chorus Line” – that brought into vivid relief why he has long been a favorite of film and Broadway audiences. His melodies have that ability to linger in one’s mind long after they’re played.
Joining the orchestra was the sensitive tenor of J. Mark McVey, who lent his bronzen voice to a selection of songs that handsomely displayed his art. No surprise that he left the audience cheering in mighty renditions of “Bring Him Home” from “Les Miserables” and the “Soliloquy” from “Carousel.”
Closing in grand style, McVey joined the orchestra once more, now augmented with the voices of the Donald Brinegar Singers, in Hamlisch’s anthem “One Song.”
Judging by the smiles on the players’ faces, Hamlisch and the PPO are definitely in the full flush of an ardent honeymoon. Here’s to hoping this marriage lasts.