Hamlisch's death leaves void at upcoming concerts

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As the music world and fans mourn the unexpected death of famed composer and performer Marvin Hamlisch, who died Monday of an undisclosed illness in Los Angeles, pops orchestras across the country are faced with how to proceed with the concerts he was to lead as conductor.

It's the reality of the forever churning show business that Mr. Hamilsch lived in and loved.

"Marvin would insist that the show must go on," said Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra spokesman Jim Barthen. "In fact, he told us that backstage in January when he had to leave a concert when he fell ill on stage.

"There will be a pops season, beginning with the Matthew Morrison concert in September, and there won't be any changes to the programs at this point."

Representatives from orchestras in Milwaukee, Dallas, Pasadena, Seattle and San Diego -- whose pops programming Mr. Hamlisch also directed -- said they are scrambling for replacement conductors in the short run and not yet certain who will take the reins in the long term.

There are several conductors who have made names for themselves in the symphonic pops realm -- Jack Everly, Michael Krajewski, Keith Lockhart, Jeff Tyzik and Steven Reineke -- but a universal response has been that no conductor will be able to match Mr. Hamlisch's savvy, star-drawing power and charisma.

Tony nominee Liz Callaway worked with Mr. Hamlisch and became a go-to singer for the conductor. "He was such a great entertainer," she said. "I don't know how he's going to be replaced with all the symphonies he works with because no one has that kind of personality. ... He was the face of so many."

Donald Pippin, a conductor and arranger who worked with Mr. Hamlisch during concerts and tours and on "A Chorus Line," echoed that sentiment. "There can be no one person who can step in and take charge of all those things. ... Forget the fact that Marvin was a brilliant musician, he was a great entertainer. His connection with an audience was amazing. And that was true whether he was in an auditorium or a living room. It didn't seem to matter."

It's the reason that the PSO is open to going in another direction rather than trying to replace him.

"We are thinking about changing the model because to date we haven't come across anyone who is like Marvin who has his musical background and talent and ability to deal with anything we threw at him," said Jim Wilkinson, president of the orchestra. "We are considering many options, but one is to change the concept. There are seven Pops concerts that are not tied together other than through Marvin."

Mr. Hamlisch booked stars and filled seats, which is most of the reason why he was paid more than PSO music director Manfred Honeck until last year (he earned $491,490 in 2011). But the stage and film composer's value went beyond the stage in every city in which he took his funny banter.

"Marvin was a great friend to the symphony and the consummate professional, always willing to meet with members of the community and to reach out to our patrons, musicians and students throughout San Diego County," said Edward Gill, CEO of the San Diego Symphony, in a statement.

But the relationship was especially strong in Pittsburgh. The PSO gave him his first break into the orchestra world by hiring him as its principal pops conductor in 1994. He embraced the city beyond the duties most expect from a guest conductor, constantly reaching out to the community.

"He always said that Pittsburgh was like a second home to him," said Mr. Wilkinson, who said the conductor often did pro-bono appearances locally, including a benefit concert in May for the arts programs of the Fox Chapel School District. "He was in the community."

"The last five years he was our guest for RADical Days," said WQED-FM host Jim Cunningham. "Anyone who wanted to speak with him he stayed to talk to. This was all squeezed in around his concerts and rehearsals. We would just marvel at how a guy with so much fame was so down to earth and accessible to fans. He wasn't paid for anything; it was his free time. He had such a personal involvement."


Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750. He blogs at www.post-gazette.com/classicalmusings. First Published August 9, 2012 4:00 AM


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