MSO Pops, honoring Hamlisch and Richard Rodgers
Francesco Lecce-Chong fills in for the late Hamlisch, the MSO's principal pops conductor.
Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra assistant conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong confided at Friday’s Pops season opener that, when he was a teen, an old video of Oklahoma! introduced him to the music of Richard Rodgers. For a while, he thought the composer’s name was actually Rodgers N. Hammerstein, as Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II were so tightly linked.
Lecce-Chong stood in for MSO pops conductor Marvin Hamlisch, the legendary composer and champion of American musical theater, who passed away on Aug. 6. This weekend’s concerts, planned as a tribute to Richard Rodgers, also became memorials for Hamlisch.
Both composers made their mark on the Great American Songbook by creating a legacy of musical standards. They were the only two individuals to win all the major show business awards, as well as the Pulitzer Prize (Rodgers for Oklahoma! and Hamlisch for A Chorus Line).
If the orchestra seemed a tad tentative at first, it may have been because the show had been put together in about two hours, according to guest vocalist J. Mark McVey, who introduced the musical tribute in the first half of the concert as “a celebration of Marvin.”
The medley began, appropriately enough, with “The Entertainer,” Hamlisch’s Oscar-winning arrangement of Scott Joplin ragtime music for the movie The Sting. It advanced into the familiar tunes from A Chorus Line, including “One” and “What I Did for Love.”
McVey said Hamlisch called the next medley “Three Songs I Love (that only three people know).” He was only half right—the songs were familiar and sung with heartfelt grace by McVey, who said he and the program’s other guest vocalist, Anne Runolfsson, had worked with Hamlisch for 22 years.
Hamlisch wrote “Falling” and “If You Remember Me” with Carole Bayer Sager, a frequent collaborator in the 1970s. The musical They’re Playing Our Song was reportedly based on their relationship. The third tune was the haunting “The Last Time Felt Like This” from the film Same Time, Next Year.
No tribute to Hamlisch would have been complete without his Oscar and Grammy-winning title song from the 1973 movie The Way We Were. McVey and Runolfsson, ably accompanied by noted Milwaukee jazz pianist Mark Davis and the orchestra, concluded the first half of the concert with the lush ballad.
Richard Rodgers’ (1902-1979) music is remembered through the songs he created during a 50-year career with two lyricists, Lorenz Hart and Hammerstein. Their songs and shows continue to have wide appeal, thanks to popular film adaptations. Their musicals, including Pal Joey, Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music are American classics.
McVey said that Hamlisch had a passion for American composers and had made it his mission to make sure their music endures. Hamlisch would say that a well-composed song could convey the entire book of a show. McVey proceeded to illustrate this with a finely nuanced rendition of the ballad “Soliloquy” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel.
Selections from Oklahoma! and South Pacific balanced a suite from Rodgers’ music for the 1950s documentary television program, Victory at Sea. Together, the selections showcased the versatility of the composer and the MSO.
McVey returned to the stage to share some anecdotes about Hamlisch and his wife, Terre, including some about the composers’ love of baseball and the New York Yankees, the Hamlisch’s trip to India in the late 80s to meet the Dalai Lama. The India story introduced the encore; Hamlisch’s global anthem “One Song” gave it added poignancy.
The program concluded with Lecce-Chong at the Steinway, to perform a reprise of “One” from A Chorus Line. The orchestra finished with a decidedly up tempo. Two pools of light appeared at the end, to highlight an open book of Hamlisch’s music and a single yellow rose on a high stool, stage right.
The MSO Pops’ A Tribute to Marvin Hamlisch (and Richard Rodgers, too!) continues at 8 Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday in Uihlein Hall of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets may be purchased online or by calling 414-291-7605.
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