PITTSBURGH, PA — Marvin Hamlisch seemed to smile down upon the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Pops Tuesday night at Heinz Hall.
Poised in a larger-than-life photo above the orchestra and surrounded by his numerous awards, the equally larger-than-life Pops conductor was lauded as “generous,” “special,” “compassionate,” “egoless” — words used by a string of friends and family who paid tribute to this “One Singular Sensation” in response to his sudden death last August.
PSO board of trustees chairman Dick Simmons began the evening by talking about the establishment of the Marvin Hamlisch Pops Artistic Excellence Fund, which the performers donated their services to, followed by Jim Rohr, chairman and CEO of PNC Bank, who sponsors the Pops.
Hamlisch’s wife, Terre, spoke of his love for the PSO and Pittsburgh, emotionally concluding with “I love you, Marvin, and I always will.” Also in attendance were his sister-in-law Charlotte and nieces Aubrey and Jordan, who appeared with their uncle in annual Pops holiday performances.
It was a somewhat similar format to the New York Philharmonic’s New Year’s Eve program broadcast on PBS that included two artists who also appeared in Pittsburgh. Maria Friedman gave a “singular”-ly British interpretation of “Nothing” from “A Chorus Line,” and Brian d’Arcy James sang “At the Fountain” from “Sweet Smell of Success.” That song included the line, “It’s like he saw inside of me, what’s really there ???”
But Hamlisch apparently had that effect on all the performers who participated here, most who had substantial relationships with the magnificent maestro, giving the evening an intimate and often moving atmosphere. They included conductor J. Ernest Green, who received Hamlisch’s baton from Mrs. Hamlisch to lead the orchestra; longtime Pops concertmaster Mark Huggins, who performed a “sweet” solo from “Success”; and pianist Kevin Cole, who, at one point, celebrated his mentor with a tune from “They’re Playing Our Song” and posed the musical question, “Does the man make the music or does the music make the man?”
While New York concentrated on the music, the PSO concentrated on the man. But like the Philharmonic, the PSO Pops also played “Somewhere” from “West Side Story,” the tune he wished he wrote, without conductor. It only served to show how much his high-stakes podium banter and rhapsodic musical approach will be missed.
Perhaps the evening’s emotional highlight came when Idina Menzel knelt next to the “legend” in his “sacred piano space” (a piano bench) while she sang “What I Did For Love.” In that moment, she seemed to channel Hamlisch, with phrasing that swooned and a similar passion that gushed forth with a powerful abandon.
There was also time to reminisce during the three-hour tribute, which included the appearance of original Broadway cast members Lucie Arnaz and Robert Klein, who brought plenty of star quality to a medley from “They’re Playing Our Song.”
And, in a wink to the “future,” Klea Blackhurst sang “While I Still Have the Time,” Hamlisch’s latest musical, based on “The Nutty Professor” and hopefully Broadway-bound.
Then, too, there was a nod to his eye for young talent, as Robert Page and the All Star College Chorus performed “Through the Eyes of Love” and two of Hamlisch’s discoveries, Vanessa Campagna and Rocky Paterra, reunited on the stage for the first time in 10 years.
Much of the evening, though, was devoted to his Pulitzer Prize-winning score from “A Chorus Line,” the crowning achievement that he often pulled from his musical bag of tricks at the Pops. Many of the tunes bore repeating Tuesday, ranging from the songs that made up the big, brassy overture (that was never played on Broadway) to the final chorus line where the performers, instead of holding up their own head shots, proudly replaced them with a photo of Hamlisch.