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Marvin Hamlisch, who died Monday at the age of 68, won’t be remembered primarily as the National Symphony Orchestra’s former Pops conductor, but he was the ideal man for the job. A lot of other orchestras knew this, too, which is why he’s being remembered for filling the same role in Pittsburgh, Seattle, San Diego, Pasadena, Dallas, and Milwaukee, all at the time of his death on Aug. 6. D.C. had him from 2000 to 2011, and Baltimore for four years before that.
Hamlisch was never shy, never stuffy, and never too cool to have a good time with the cheesiest of programs. Really, he was never too cool, period. At one “Latin Night” show with Jon Secada and Tito Puente, Jr., Hamlisch exclaimed from the podium, “I can’t say much about the language, but the women…wow!” It might have been weird coming from someone else, but this was MC Hamlisch, grinning through those geeky glasses and puffy cheeks, and the audience (mostly middle-aged Latina women) loved it.
Lest we forget, he was also a serious musician, a prodigy no less. As a pianist, by age 5 he could play songs from the radio by ear, and by age 7 he was admitted to Julliard. His career as a composer took him to Broadway and Hollywood which, along with his ease in the spotlight, made him one of the country’s best-known composers. It also placed him in a world apart from other contemporary classical composers who are used to pushing musical boundaries in relative obscurity. Hamlisch didn’t experiment with atonality. He wrote for mass audiences and was good at it. He knew what moved them: verve, easy melody, lots of brass, all of which helped make his most famous work, A Chorus Line, one of Broadway’s longest-running shows. He could do schmaltzy love ballads (“The Way We Were”), catchy adaptations (of Scott Joplin’s ragtime in The Sting), moody reflections (Sophie’s Choice), and jazzy farce (The Informant!).
By the time Hamlisch signed up with the NSO, he had already won three Oscars, four Emmys, a Tony, and a Pulitzer. He was still in demand as a film composer, but expressed weariness at the prospect of scoring a “Transformers 14.” The pops circuit gave him a late-career side gig that allowed him to share music directly with audiences in various cities. His stage presence was reminiscent of your tipsy uncle telling corny jokes at Thanksgiving, if your uncle were also a skilled pianist and conductor.
Hamlisch was slated to be the Philadelphia Orchestra’s next pops conductor when he died in Los Angeles. It’s too bad for Philly. Hamlisch knew what makes a good pops program as well as he did a good musical. It’s a light, friendly back-and-forth with the audience through music and banter, and Hamlisch had the routine down. He’s the guy who could tell a funny story that wasn’t funny, laugh at himself, and make you look forward to his next one.