Hamlisch, 'SuperPops' open on a high note

September 27, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

A rare visit by this listener to one of the Baltimore Symphony's "SuperPops" programs was occasioned by Marvin Hamlisch's initial concert yesterday afternoon in Meyerhoff Hall as the orchestra's first Principal Pops Conductor.

The concert, which was organized along themes of love and romance, suggested that Hamlisch -- one of our most successful (and talented) composers of popular music -- may be just the man to lead the pops series out of the doldrums and restore its luster as the cash cow that helps subsidize the orchestra's primary mission, which is to present the masterpieces in the Western European musical tradition.

One should perhaps preface the word "serious" to "Western musical tradition." Because one of the better things about Hamlisch's program was its intelligent presentation of some of the classics in the American -- itself an amalgam of Western European and African -- popular tradition. He served up generous helpings of songs by the Gershwin brothers, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter and Hamlisch's own arrangement the Billie Holiday standard, "God Bless the Child."

Hamlisch's background is largely in musical theater and he selected two soloists who really knew how to sell a song. J. Mark McVey did a stylish job in putting across such great standards as the Gershwins' "Someone to Watch Over Me" and was able to use his innate taste in making treacly material such as "Bring Him Home" (from the Boublil-Schonberg "Les Miserables") sound reasonably palatable.

Soprano Carol Woods showed off a voice that could not have been bigger or more beautiful or more intelligently used in its application to the blues or to Broadway show songs. A musical salute to the late Gene Kelly, which featured the dancer-singer Don Correia, successfully re-created some of the Kelly aura. And the Baltimore Symphony Chorus, which has rarely sounded better, got to play a starring role in numbers by Rodgers and Hammerstein and Cole Porter.

Much of the time, in fact, one wondered how necessary the BSO itself was to the success of the programming. I could have listened all night to Hamlisch's imaginative piano playing when he collaborated with the singers. The participation of a large orchestra -- though not in arrangements as fine as those by Carmen Dragon or by Hamlisch himself -- often makes popular music sound bloated.

In any case, the audience loved the concert, which left only one serious question. That is the wisdom of Thursday matinees. At least one-third of Meyerhoff's seats were unfilled yesterday afternoon. Thursday at 2 p.m. may be a time still in search of its destined audience. But if it doesn't find that audience soon, it will be time to find a new time.

The program will be repeated tonight and Saturday night at 8 and Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m.

Pub Date: 9/27/96

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