An Arranged Marriage

Music: BSO SuperPops conductor Marvin Hamlisch loves to blend popular tunes with classical. But with so few modern songs written for orchestra, matchmaking is difficult.

June 08, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The biggest problem Marvin Hamlisch has with the world of symphonic pops is making arrangements.

It's not that his schedule is so jammed that he can't find time to conduct concerts like the ones he's leading with the Baltimore Symphony this week (his final stint as the BSO's SuperPops conductor). Nor does he have difficulty booking guest musicians; as he puts it, "When I'm making my calendar each year, I start out with blank pages. If someone wants to work with me, I can always find a time that fits."

No, the biggest problem Hamlisch has with pops concerts is finding orchestral arrangements of the songs he wants to perform.

"It is very hard to take tunes - just tunes that have been written since 1970 - and get a version of them written for orchestra," he says.

At the moment, Hamlisch is sitting in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown. A tall, beefy, bespectacled man with graying hair and an affable demeanor, he looks like just another businessman with his white shirt, blue blazer and neatly pressed khakis - the only difference being that he's not carrying a cell phone or briefcase.

Still, Hamlisch isn't completely anonymous. When the Four Seasons' lounge pianist begins his shift midway through our conversation, one of the first tunes he strikes up is Hamlish's "The Way We Were," the 1973 movie theme that was a chart-topping hit for Barbra Streisand. Then again, maybe it's just coincidence. After all, "The Way We Were" is just the sort of tuneful evergreen a lounge pianist anywhere would be likely to play.

It's also an ideal number for a symphonic pops concert - which brings us back to Hamlisch's point about the dearth of usable pops arrangements. "There is no such thing as `The Way We Were' written for orchestra," he says. "Yes, I have a version of it that I do, but I play the piano on it. This is why you'll have the same people doing the same programs in a lot of places, because you only have a finite supply of music."

This isn't a problem that conductors working within the classical repertoire have to worry about. Be it a score by Tchaikovsky or Takemitsu, finding the parts for an orchestral performance is never a problem. But unless orchestrators start actively scoring interesting, entertaining orchestral versions of today's popular melodies, pops concerts are going to wind up with a serious repertory shortage.

"In the heyday of the Boston Pops, they hired great orchestrators," he says. "That's where Leroy Anderson made it." Anderson was the man behind such favorites as "The Syncopated Clock" and "Sleigh Ride" - pieces originally written specifically for the Boston Pops Orchestra.

Hamlisch thinks that the only way for today's pops programs to get similar material is to make it possible for modern Leroy Andersons to make a living.

"I maintain that if a composer didn't need the money or didn't have an assignment, he wouldn't write," he says. "He'd just sit around, and do whatever. But if they said at the court to Mozart, `Look, we gotta have a string quartet, and we gotta have it Thursday,' chances are he's going to write it. I think it's the same thing with most people in music. They'd say to Leroy Anderson, `We need a curtain-raiser, and we need it for next Sunday.' Boom. And now he starts to write."

Hamlisch is quite passionate on the subject, going so far as to suggest that someone bankroll a network of orchestrators. "Whoever does that will clean up," he says, laughing.

Still, there was a time when he never would have imagined himself fretting over such things. It wasn't that he didn't care about symphonic pops. It was just that when he started , he saw himself as a composer, not a conductor.

Certainly, he had the right training, having been one of the youngest students ever to enroll at the Juilliard conservatory in New York. He cut his teeth on classical music, knows the orchestra inside out and understands what makes a composition work - be it a pop song or a symphony.

But at the same time, Hamlisch says, "I happen to love popular music. I just do." Indeed, he's as likely to refer to MTV as to Cole Porter, and speaks enthusiastically about artists as wide-ranging as the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan; Reba McEntire and Lyle Lovett; or Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera.

"I treat popular music with the same respect as if I were doing Bach or Beethoven," he adds. "In some of my concerts now, I'm starting to bring in much more classical music than I've ever done before, trying to show they both can be on the same rung. I will say, `Here's a popular composer of his day, and this is what he wrote.' "

As a popular composer of his own day, Hamlisch has been responsible for a few hits, although not always of the Top-40 variety. In fact, the only time he made the charts was with a song he hadn't written: Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer," which he rescued from obscurity and slipped into the soundtrack of "The Sting."

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