Tom Strini

MSO Holiday Pops, Hamlisch

By - Dec 4th, 2009 05:15 pm
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Conductor Marvin Hamlisch said Friday afternoon that the MSO’s Holiday Pops program isn’t just about the music, and he meant it.


Holiday Pops at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. TCD photo by Brian Jacobson.

Friday night at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, it was at least as much about Hamlisch just having fun with the audience, in his deadpan, Henny Youngman way. Hamlisch did a whole bit about being Jewish guy leading a Christmas concert. Favorite line: “My temple is so Reform that it’s closed on High Holidays.” Ba-dump-bump.

He’s got a million of ’em folks, and they’re all good. Hamlisch can also think on his feet while bantering with the audience and other performers. He’s just good company.

Marvin Hamlisch, conductor, pianist, composer, kidder. TCD photo by Brian Jacobson.

Marvin Hamlisch, conductor, pianist, composer, kidder. TCD photo by Brian Jacobson.

Musically, Friday’s concert was a little uneven. Energy was down in the opening medley of the usual songs, in a perfunctory arrangement by Leroy Anderson. (Even that great orchestrator, apparently, had his off days.) A novelty version of the Twelve Days of Christmas, rendered in baggy-pants comedy fashion by Jonathan West, didn’t prompt enough laughs for the time and trouble. (West did, however, prove to be an engaging Santa Claus.)

The Milwaukee Symphony Chorus sounded terrific, in an a cappella stint led by chorus master Lee Erickson, in assorted carols with orchestra, and in Hamlisch’s own dreamy Chanukah Nights.

Chanukah Nights featured the dreamy voice of Margaret Carlson. She might have been on a Pops stage, but she is a jazz chanteuse at heart. Her flexible, intimate reading of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas was smart and sophisticated, yet warm.

The remarkable Mikaela Schneider, a freshman at Greendale High School, did not sound at all like a little girl in rendering Schubert’s Ave Maria. Beautifully supported singing, impeccable pitch, perfectly placed ornaments, lovely legato and interpretive modesty made for a performance of irresistible purity and clarity.

Hamlisch became more and more engaged with the music and the audience as the evening went on, and he and the orchestra were clicking nicely by the end. Leroy Anderson had a very good day when he composed Sleigh Ride, which made an exhilarating finish to a pleasant holiday event.

The repeat performances Saturday and Sunday are sold out. Scroll down for an interview with Marvin Hamlisch.

The Interview

It was just Christmas Muzak in the Pfister Hotel lobby, but it made Marvin Hamlisch’s ears perk up.

“Hear that? Sleigh Ride! I love that. I like to imagine Leroy Anderson coming to Arthur Fiedler with it, when Anderson was just an orchestrator for the Boston Pops. Can you think what that must of been like, the first time Fiedler put it on the stand and the Boston Pops played it and it just took off? The thing just plays itself. You just feel like you’re rushing along. And that horse whinny!”

That will be the last number on Hamlisch’s Holiday Pops concerts with the Milwaukee Symphony this weekend. He always programs Sleigh Ride last, because it makes him leave the hall feeling happy.

Hamlisch, 65, has had so many hits that he doesn’t need to work. A Chorus Line alone would have bankrolled a luxurious early retirement. Instead, he’s working with Jerry Lewis on a musical based on Lewis’ film, The Nutty Professor, and flying around the country leading Pops programs.

“Jerry told me that God doesn’t show you the Rule Book until you’re 80,” Hamlisch said. “Jerry’s 82. Like a good straight man, I asked him what the rules are. He says, ‘One, get born. Two, fine something you’re passionate about. Three, do it until you drop dead.’

“That’s the key to a happy life. I don’t know what I’d do without music.”

Hamlisch is Jewish, but he enjoys the season’s Christmas music as much as the next guy.

“The non-Jews have all the good songs,” he said. “Dreidel Dreidel Dreidel just doesn’t stack up with Away in a Manger.”

Most orchestras now include some Hanukkah music in their holiday programming. Because the MSO has Hamlisch as its principal pops conductor, it has a little something special in that department.

“A few years ago, I played this Chanukah Suite — and swore I’d never play it again. So I wrote Chanukah Lights. I had to. I had to have something to play, for God’s sake.”

Hamlisch had high praise for Lee Erickson’s Milwaukee Symphony Chorus, which will sing his piece, among others.

“I come here assuming certain things will be ready,” he said. “When they are, I’m in heaven. That chorus is really good.”

Hamlisch does not merely plug himself into pre-arranged concerts. He engineers these programs and takes an active hand in arranging guest artists — even the local ones prominent in this year’s Holiday Pops.

“After rehearsal today,” he said, “we were already talking about next year. We’re thinking about a 1950s rock ‘n’ roll concert on New Year’s Eve.

“I consider Pops shows, not concert. The audience should get to know they people on the stage. I have a sense of humor and I like to have fun. That makes the evening not just about the music. If it were just about the music, they could buy a CD and stay home.”

They’re turning out in large numbers for Hamlisch. The Holiday Pops are completely sold out.

Some tickets remain for the Kinderkonzert version, set for 2 p.m. Saturday at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. For tickets and further information, visit the MSO website or call the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206.

Holiday Pops Artist Line-Up: Conductor and host Marvin Hamlisch, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, and vocalists Mikaela Schneider, Margaret Carlson and Jonathan West.

Categories: Classical, Culture Desk

0 thoughts on “Review: MSO Holiday Pops, Hamlisch”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I saw the concert on Saturday night; Hamlisch’s schtick was tiresome, to the point of being boring. How I wish there had been more music and less talk..

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks, for weighing in, Jeff. — Strini

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