In spite of a few shiny awards for his mantel — three Oscars, four Grammys, four Emmys, a Tony and a little prize named for some guy called Pulitzer — there’s still plenty of ham in Marvin Hamlisch, who takes the stage at Pasadena Pops on Saturday for his second concert as the orchestra’s new principal conductor.
As he had displayed during his debut concert July 23, the celebrated composer is equally skilled at wielding the baton and the shtick. And nobody does it better. He joked about the weather, crowing about telling his friends back in New York he was spending a cool evening on the lawn near the Rose Bowl while they baked in the 103-degree East Coast heat. He referred to his orchestral arrangements of Scott Joplin rags for the movie “The Sting” as “the music that paid for this tux.” He told his audience that when his mother was asked by talk show host Mike Douglas to name her favorite composer on his live show, she replied: “Richard Rodgers” (“I couldn’t lie,” she later whispered to her son). And he noted he knows Lady Gaga so well he calls her “Ga.”
Hamlisch doesn’t take things too seriously because, frankly, he doesn’t have to. He’s got nothing to prove. When Hamlisch was on the podium, leading the orchestra in “One” from “A Chorus Line,” he was not only conducting it — he wrote the score. (The Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway show, he cracks, was called “A Chorus Line” instead of “The Chorus Line” because the New York Times does its theater listings alphabetically).
Still, in a post-concert interview in his backstage trailer, Hamlisch, 67, says he still believes that a musician needs to prove himself to an audience before charming them with patter. That’s why, for his debut concert, he decided to walk out, wow ‘em with the overture from “Gypsy,” then step back to get friendly with what he calls “the customers.”
“This is my theory: First, you put on the table that you’re a musician,” says Hamlisch, summer’s King of Pops as he dashes around the country as principal pops conductor for orchestras in Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Dallas, Seattle and San Diego. “You conduct Jerome Kern, you conduct ‘Gypsy,’ people know that you know what you are doing. You can do this. Then you bring them in with the funny stuff.”
Hamlisch seems as eager to please as a new puppy. He doesn’t call it a concert, he calls it a show. Ordinarily he’s not crazy about performing outdoors because of heat and bugs, but things are OK in mosquito-free Pasadena. And when he hears that a couple of women said during intermission that they missed the summer tradition of opening with the National Anthem, he asserts that, in the future, “If they want it, they’ll get it.”
Hamlisch replaces Rachael Worby — also known for her ability to interact with an audience — who announced last August that she would step down after 11 seasons and has launched her own Pasadena-based orchestra, Muse/Ique. Hamlisch’s appointment happened shortly after Worby resigned. “I had nothing to do with Rachael leaving, it had nothing to do with me — she was gone before I ever had to think about this thing,” he says. “They acted fast, but I’m not the cause of any problems they’ve had.”
And Hamlisch — starting out with a two-season, six-concert contract “because if it doesn’t work, why should they be stuck with me for five years?” — knows the orchestra has had its financial troubles. But he’s willing to gamble because “I like everybody here, I think they are really trying, and I’ve found this to be refreshing. I felt like, they can only afford so much, and [I decided] you know what, I should be a part of this, because it could be a great success story. You don’t know, so you give it a shot.”
Paul Jan Zdunek, chief executive of the Pasadena Symphony and Pops organization, was pleased with Hamlisch’s first effort. “You wind Marvin up, you send him out, and he knocks it out of the park,” Zdunek said afterward. And of potential competition between Pasadena Pops and Worby’s new venture, he added: “It’s like restaurants, the more the merrier. But at the same time, the American dream is a capitalistic society and the strongest person will be standing.”
For his part, Hamlisch just wants everybody to have fun. And he thinks it might be time to give a new name to his summer concert choices. “ ‘Pops’ may not be the right word, anymore,” he says. “Kids don’t know what it means. I would love it if someone would come up with a better name. Maybe it could be the American Songbook Evening [or] Songs You Sing …
“My whole thing is not just to play music for people, but to make them part of the evening,” he adds. “Many, many years ago, I was one of the few conductors who talked to the audience and now a lot of classical conductors have figured it out… otherwise, you just get the back of someone’s head playing music you could hear on a CD. It’s not enough anymore.”