By Ted AYALA
There was a sense of optimism wafting between the notes on Saturday at the Rose Bowl. On the stage set up on the stadium’s lawn were the Pasadena Pops and its music director Marvin Hamlisch. Hamlisch has much to take pride in. His inaugural season with the Pops has been an undisputed success, both artistically and financially. Among the brief words of appreciation and thanks before the program, Pops CEO Paul Jan Zdunek announced that demand for Pops tickets had jumped 500% since Hamlisch’s arrival. Indeed, Hamlisch has already established a fine rapport both with his audience and the orchestra, from which he coaxes brilliant and elegant playing.
Adding to the auspiciousness of the moment is the Pops’ move to its new home at the Los Angeles County Arboretum beginning next summer. Surrounded by the Arboretum’s lush, natural beauty, the Pops will finally have a home commensurate with its quality.
Not that the Rose Bowl is anything to sniff at. Stage lighting washing over the basin, a gentle breeze slicing through the still warm air while the surrounding hills echoed with Gershwin, Legrand, and tunes from Hamlisch’s own pen were reminders of what an extraordinary time the Pops has enjoyed at the Rose Bowl.
Though a farewell concert, any potential bittersweetness was quickly dispelled by the Pops’ sparkling playing and its special guest.
Broadway star Susan Egan charmed listeners with a voice that could be sweet and coy one moment, brassy and tough the next. From her throat emerged a voice of thundering power and sensitive artistry; a powerful voice that belied her petite frame. Paying tribute to Judy Garland in a medley of tunes from some of Garland’s best known stage and film roles, Egan’s voice pealed forth and made each song her very own.
But the bulk of the program cast the Pops in a starring role – and it did not disappoint. From the heroic trumpets of “Star Wars” to the wan lyricism of Michel Legrand’s score for the “Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” the Pops impressed with finely honed ensemble sound and outstanding solo work. Gershwin’s tone poem, “An American in Paris,” which closed the evening, brilliantly displayed the manifold strengths of the Pops. Humor, too, peeked its head with pointed and sassy musicianship that highlighted how the work served as inspiration to cartoon composers like Scott Bradley and Carl Stalling.
Even the ever charming Hamlisch had a share in the spotlight, with a handful of some of his pop hits sung with grace and style by guest singer Melissa Manchester. A grand evening, all in all, and one that sets its sights on even grander moments in the near future. Though Hamlisch still couldn’t resist another self effacing jibe.
Noting how his childhood home still exists today he spelled out the differences between him and one of his colleagues.
“Wherever Mozart stayed and ate, the site will get commemorated,” lamented Hamlisch. “Mozart gets a plaque. But me? Nothing.”