Tom Strini

Hamlisch’s Patriotic Pops

By - Jun 11th, 2010 11:40 pm
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Before leading a medley of armed services anthems, Marvin Hamlisch asked the veterans of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and  Coast Guard to stand when they heard their song. They did, and the moment was touching

Marvin Hamlisch. Photo courtesy of website.

But Hamlisch also expressed the hope that the youngsters in the audience would grow up to a more peaceful world that would not call upon them for military service.

The two points summed up the ethos of this concert: Rah, Rah, America’s great, don’t be embarrassed to say so. But don’t get carried away.

So we had a rousing performance of Irving Berlin’s This Is a Great Country and then Lee Greenwood’s cheesy God Bless the USA. But then along came Hamlisch’s heartfelt One Song, the composer’s wistful idea of a world anthem. He introduced it by noting that we’re all in this together, floating on a tiny blue ball in a big black space.

Musically, Hamlisch’s concerts tend to be messy in ensemble and balance early and come into focus as the evening wears on. This was no exception. Versatile tenor Mark McVey — who gave a hint of country twang to the Greenwood power anthem — opened with an oddly operatic a cappella Star-Spangled Banner, complete with sobbing inflections. Simplicity would had served the occasion better. A couple of listless, unfocused orchestral medleys followed.

Everyone perked up when trumpeters Mark Niehaus, Alan Campbell and Jeff Kay came front and center for Leroy Anderson’s Bugler’s Holiday. (What a clever composer Anderson was, with those irresistible syncopations bubbling over a fleet beat.)

Hamlisch’s best musical effort came in Peter Wilhousky’s stirring, large-scale arrangement of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, for chorus and orchestra. The MSO Chorus, prepared as always by Lee Erickson, was especially sharp with the funny little rhythmic and declamatory tricks in the song. Those usually get smoothed over; this time, the hymn had an edge. Hamlisch managed Wilhousky’s elaborations and guided the piece to an enormous and satsifying climax. The big audience jumped to its feet at the end, though Battle Hymn occurred in the middle of the second half.

To some extent, though, the finer musical points of such a program aren’t all that important. Hamlisch is the first to say that it’s a show, not a concert. He’s a charming, funny host, and that’s important. He runs Pops concerts as if they were old-time variety shows. He banters with the audience and the guest artists. Friday, he drew funny stories from the three trumpeters, the members of the guest bluegrass band (Above the Town), and from the singers in a barbershop quartet drawn from the chorus.

This Stars & Stripes Pops program is a corny, old-fashioned show, and a good show.

Repeat performances are set for 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. Tickets are $25-$93 at the Marcus box office, 414-273-7206.

Click here for an advance story, with lots of tasty links, about this program.

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