It was an honor and privilege to be at the Music Center at Strathmore on Thursday evening as Jack Everly led the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in a loving and moving tribute to the one, singular and very much missed sensation, Marvin Hamlisch.
On my way to Strathmore, I found myself thinking about the size and scope of Marvin’s amazing body of work and wondering how in the world anybody would or could choose the music for this concert. The surprise to me was not that the music Marvin is most associated with was there, nor was the inclusion of easily recognized music from movie scores that many may not have remembered or realized he composed. The surprise was that Marvin knew that tribute concerts would happen, and that he used this opportunity to enroll musicians and audiences alike in the Marvin Hamlisch School of Music. Marvin chose the program. True to form, he let us hear some of his greatest hits, pointed at parts of his work he wanted us to discover again, and then he generously shone a spotlight on some of his own musical heroes by sharing with us some of the wonderful music he loved but did not compose. Along the way, he shared many life lessons.
With a giant overhead screen projecting nostalgic images of Marvin, and the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra sitting onstage dressed in white jackets, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Principal Pops conductor Jack Everly opened the concert with a medley of Marvin’s hits. It began with a solo harp that seemed to be coming straight from heaven, followed immediately by “The Way We Were,” “Ice Castles,” “The Last Time I Felt Like This, One”, and “They’re Playing Our Song.” As the audience reacted with smiles, tears, applause, and cheers, it became abundantly and immediately clear that Marvin had planned one very special evening.
Joining the BSO for the evening was an ensemble of vocalists featuring Marissa McGowan and including the wonderfully talented Felicia Curry, Kate Fisher, Shawn Doyle, Nicholas Houhoulis, and Andre McRae, a children’s vocal ensemble featuring boy soprano John Moses, and a girls quartet, including Shreya Rangarajan, Elissa DeStefano, Alyk Moomaw, and Eva Hill, and dancers from the Baltimore School for the Arts.
McGowan, selected by Marvin to star in the role of Stella Purdy in the world premiere of his last musical The Nutty Professor (directed by Jerry Lewis), made her entrance singing Marvin’s earliest hits “Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows” and “California Nights,” both of which were written with Howard Liebling and recorded by Leslie Gore. A beautiful young singer with a pure and genuine sound, McGowan was delightful throughout the concert.
Marvin’s career first took off in film, and the BSO celebrated this period of his development with a performance of “The Last Time I Felt Like This” (from Same Time, Next Year and recorded by Johnny Mathis), a suite from The Swimmer (which Marvin composed at the very young age of 22), and The Sting. Later in the concert came the stunningly soulful music from Sophie’s Choice.
Both publicly and privately, Marvin often joked about his A-List composers, and these were the composers who composed music Marvin wished he had composed. High on this list was one of his life-long musical heroes Jule Styne, and he chose to honor him in his own tribute concert with a performance of the “Overture to Gypsy.” Later, tribute was paid to Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim with a beautiful arrangement of “Somewhere,” from West Side Story.
Jack Everly, one of the top pops conductors in the world, happens to be the Principal Pops Conductor of the Baltimore Symphony. He conducted this concert not only in this professional capacity, but also as Marvin’s frequent collaborator and friend. The concert was celebratory, as Marvin would want, but the loss that all who knew and loved Marvin struggle with was frequently visible in Everly’s facial expressions and in his voice as he spoke. One of the things he shared was his own admiration for Marvin, and of how nervous he was when at the young age of 26, he called to introduce himself, a call that resulted in many collaborations through the years.
Marvin was a very generous and giving musician and friend. His musical genius was without question, and his winning sense of humor was legendary. His loyalty and genuine desire to help others both professionally and personally is something that seems to be coming to light publically in a much bigger way now, as one by one people come forward to share personal recollections of Marvin’s many acts of kindness. One example of this was Jack Everly, who in introducing the “Overture to the Goodbye Girl,” mentioned how supportive Marvin was to everybody connected with the difficult pre-Broadway launch of this show during its run at Chicago’s Shubert Theatre.
I know and love Marvin’s music. Still, hearing so much of it in just the first half of the concert, I found myself thinking not about how much music he composed, but how much great music he composed and about the amazing people he met and worked with throughout his all too short life. Oddly enough, just after the second half of the concert opened with a reprise of “They’re Playing Our Song,” up popped a video clip of a 21 year-old Marvin and an 81 year-old Groucho Marx in a very humorous performance of “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady.”
“Anatomy of Peace,” Marvin’s only symphonic work, was first performed by the Dallas Symphony, and was later performed in Paris to commemorate D-Day. The BSO performance featured John Moses, a seventh grade student and boy soprano from Towson, Maryland, as well as girl sopranos Shreya Rangarajan, Elissa DeStefano, Alyk Moomaw, and Eva Hill. While the music was very challenging vocally, the piece was beautiful, and involving children in a peace-themed work is something that would be near and dear to Marvin’s heart. Marvin loved children, frequently featured them in his concerts, and always encouraged parents to bring them to his concerts.
Marvin enjoyed the way people loved “Nobody Does It Better,” the song he composed for The Spy Who Loved Me, and the audience laughed as Jack Everly shared how Marvin got a kick out of responding to compliments from his close friends with, “What can I say? Nobody does it better!” Marissa McGowan was at her best singing this song and the beautiful arrangement of “The Way We Were” that followed.
Marvin won a Pulitzer Prize for his very first musical, A Chorus Line. One of Marvin’s very favorite songs from this show was “At the Ballet.” The performance of this piece was a high point of the concert and featured the vocal trio of Marissa McGowan, Felicia Curry (well known to regional audiences from her appearances at The Kennedy Center, Signature Theatre, and Arena Stage), and Kate Fisher (seen as Cosette in Les Misérables on Broadway and in the national tour), along with dancers from the Baltimore School for the Arts. It was delightful.
A very poignant moment followed as Jack Everly took a seat at the piano (as Marvin always did in his concerts) and played the “Ice Castles.” Listening to this beautiful song, absolutely nobody wanted “this all too brief moment” with Marvin to end.
The next to the last song of the evening, “What I Did For Love,” was very personal to Marvin. It was one of three songs selected for his memorial service, and in many ways it shares a message of who Marvin was as a man and as a musician. It was beautifully sung by Marissa McGowan, who was joined by the entire vocal ensemble in a modulating arrangement that brought the house down.
No celebratory concert honoring Marvin Hamlisch could end with anything but the music from A Chorus Line, and particularly the song “One.” There was only one Marvin Hamlisch. He was one singular sensation, and absolutely nobody did it better. Marvin.
Marvin Hamlisch: One Singular Sensation was presented by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at the Music Center at The Music Center at Strathmore – 5301 Tuckerman Lane, in North Bethesda, MD on Thursday, January 23, 2014, at 8 pm. For future events, check their schedule of events. The concert will be repeated TONIGHT at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall – 1212 Cathedral Street, in Baltimore, MD tonight, Saturday, January 25, at 8 pm, and tomorrow Sunday, January 26 at 3 pm. For tickets, purchase them online.
Marvin Hamlisch website.