PSO Pops begins era without Hamlisch

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On Saturday the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra officially began the difficult task of moving its Pops series into a new era without the services of long-time figurehead and conductor Marvin Hamlisch.

But the masterful and witty maestro was at Heinz Hall in spirit. Although he passed away suddenly Aug. 6, the PSO brought in a former resident and assistant conductor, now music director at the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, Lucas Richman, who started by saying, "This afternoon I have big shoes to fill."

The evening continued with a slide presentation of the award-winning composer, at which point Mr. Richman remarked that the "season continues in [Mr. Hamlisch's] vision."

Indeed Mr. Richman, a capable conductor, segued into selections from "Funny Girl," where Mr. Hamlisch was the rehearsal pianist for star Barbra Streisand, which launched his career. The orchestra felt restrained, perhaps by the moment at hand, and likewise with Mr. Richman's arrangement of "Great Love Songs from the Movies."

But the ensemble regained its breathability and sweep after intermission with the appearance of "Glee" star, Matthew Morrison, who brought some magnetic arrangements from his upcoming album.

Although most people know him as Mr. Schuester on television, Mr. Morrison turned out to be a throwback to the historic song-and-dance man. And as an unabashed Broadway show lover, he was right up Mr. Hamlisch's alley, for the former Pops conductor often tried to promote young talent to continue the popularity of the Great White Way.

Only 33, Mr. Morrison fit the bill. Emerging in a casual black suit, raincoat (and umbrella) and porkpie hat, he immediately channeled Fred Astaire as he twirled a coat rack during the uptempo "It Don't Mean a Thing."

This concert had to be regarded as a preview of events to come, so there were a few glitches along the way -- his between-song patter could have been beefed up and there was also some nervousness at the start.

He relied on free-wheeling energetic moves (which could be sharpened by collaborating with a choreographer) for standards like "The Lady is a Tramp" and could have used a more laid-back vocal weight in his "mash-up" of "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "Basin Street Blues."

But Mr. Morrison really hit his stride in a driving percussive medley from "West Side Story," so difficult in its phrasing and transitions, then a reprise of "Younger Than Springtime," from his Broadway role in "South Pacific."

After one more heartfelt nod to Mr. Hamlisch and "What I Did For Love," the lights went out, except for a spotlight on Mr. Hamlisch's podium.

Mr. Morrison finished as only a song-and-dance man could, right here in Pittsburgh, with a "Singin' In the Rain" tribute to native Gene Kelly.

Mr. Hamlisch would have been thrilled.

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