Conducting Electricity Music: With outrageous talent, a quick wit and a flair for theater, Marvin Hamlisch is expected to put a charge into the BSO pops series.

September 26, 1996|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- When Marvin Hamlisch steps onto the podium today for his debut as the principal pops conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, many of the elements of theater will be present.

There will be dimmed lights. A romantic theme. Punch lines. Dramatic tension. Staging. Catchy music.

And a star, of course: The conductor himself.

All of which is part of the plan.

"My background is in music, but in the theater. So these programs have some theatrical basis. I'll be playing the piano and speaking. I'm not going to be up there just waving the baton. If that's all I am planning, then they don't need me," he says of the symphony.

"I have never enjoyed the kind of concert where you just sit there and only see the back of the conductor."

Indeed, a glance at the list of credits belonging to Hamlisch, a Broadway and movie composer ("A Chorus Line," "The Way We Were"), pianist, performer and conductor, suggests that he has never been one to "just sit there" for anything.

At age 7, he was one of the youngest students ever accepted by the Juilliard School of Music. At 17, he wrote his first hit song, "Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows." At 29, he won three Oscars -- best song and best original score for "The Way We Were" and best adaptation for "The Sting."

Since then he has picked up four Grammys, two Emmys, a Tony, three Golden Globe awards and a Pulitzer, written more than 40 film scores, co-authored his autobiography and composed a symphony.

"Marvin is driven," says Michael Keller, a conductor and drummer who has worked with Hamlisch since 1978 when Hamlisch composed the music for "They're Playing Our Song," a long-running Broadway show.

"It is terrific to look into his eyes and see the fire burn."

On a recent August afternoon, however, Hamlisch has, in fact, agreed to sit still for an interview in the white-and-gold living room of his Upper East Side apartment. Not for long, though.

He's home for a few days to visit his wife, Terre Blair Hamlisch, a former ABC "Wide World of Sports" newscaster. (At the urging of mutual friends, the two got acquainted via the telephone while living on opposite coasts -- and Hamlisch proposed and she accepted before they met.)

The first half of Hamlisch's summer was spent on tour with Linda Ronstadt and the Pittsburgh Symphony. In recent weeks, he has been working in Los Angeles -- composing and rehearsing the soundtrack for Barbra Streisand's newest film "The Mirror Has Two Faces," which is scheduled to open in November. In a few hours, he will fly to Boston to conduct a benefit concert.

Then it's back to L.A.

It is not the first time that Hamlisch and Streisand have worked together. At 18, Hamlisch, a student at Queens College, got a break when he was called in to substitute for a rehearsal pianist. The show was "Funny Girl" -- and Streisand was starring.

Later, they met again when Streisand starred with Robert Redford in "The Way We Were," and Hamlisch wrote the Oscar-winning title song. In 1994, Streisand asked Hamlisch to be the conductor on her sold-out world tour.

Perfecting a soundtrack for a Streisand movie can be a grueling, 20-hour-a-day process. Picture a host "telling a chef who had prepared dinner for four, 'There will be one slight change, it will be dinner for 40,' " Hamlisch says and laughs.

"It is a truly packed experience. Enjoyable but tough, and it makes concerts seem like a piece of cake."

Another perfectionist

Besides, Hamlisch himself is known for intensity and perfectionism. Once, he paid $15,000 of his own money to rerecord the last 90 seconds of the score of "The Way We Were" -- after the recording sessions were a wrap.

When he heard the ending during a preview, Hamlisch knew he had made a mistake: He needed to repeat bars from his title song to perfect the score.

The film's producers said no. Hamlisch did it anyway and won two Oscars.

"I'd do it again," he says and pauses. "But I'm not sure I'd pay for it again."

By hiring Hamlisch -- who is also entering his third year as the principal pops conductor at the Pittsburgh Symphony -- the BSO joins a handful of American orchestras that have music directors for their pops as well as their classical concert series.

Symphonies have long considered pops series moneymakers that help subsidize their more "serious" activities -- and as a way to attract listeners who normally wouldn't attend concerts of say, Mahler. And Hamlisch is the kind of conductor who can draw audiences on the strength of his own name.

"We had all come to feel that the pops lacked the heart and soul that only a leader could provide, and the more we talked together the more it became clear that Marvin was the one who could really put his stamp on the pops," says John Gidwitz, executive director.

"What's very special, if not unique, about Marvin Hamlisch is that he can attract a really unbounded market."

Music in the afternoon

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