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Tribute to legendary Hamlisch attempts to capture his spirit

| Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Late American composer Marvin Hamlisch as photographed at Heinz Hall in Downtown Pittsburgh in October 2011. Hamlisch is one of only two people to win Oscars, Emmys, Grammys, Tonys, and the Pulitzer Prize for his work as a composer. He also won two Golden Globes. Hamlisch died Monday, Aug. 6, 2012, after a brief illness. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
The fall of 2009 photo shows composer Marvin Hamlisch at Heinz Hall in downtown Pittsburgh. Hamlisch, a conductor and award-winning composer best known for the torch song 'The Way We Were,' died Monday, Aug. 6, 2012 in Los Angeles. He was 68. CREDIT: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

When Marvin Hamlisch died in August, the outpouring of tributes went far beyond the praise one would expect for an artist of his accomplishments, which included winning virtually every relevant award there is — some, multiple times.

There was an extraordinary degree of personal affection in those comments, which is the sentiment of his colleagues and others as they look forward to a tribute concert in Pittsburgh, where Hamlisch led the Pops for 17 seasons.

J. Ernest Green will conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in “One Singular Sensation — A Tribute to Marvin Hamlisch” on Tuesday evening at Heinz Hall, Downtown.

Guest artists include Lucie Arnaz and Robert Klein, the original stars of his show “They're Playing Our Song.” Other musical-theater singers he admired and worked with appearing in the show include Maria Friedman and Idina Menzel. Gershwin specialist pianist Kevin Cole and the All-Star College Choir, selected and prepared by Robert Page, will perform as well.

“He was a man full of love and I say that, in a sentimental way, he was the loyalist person I ever worked with, bar none,” says Friedman. “I was lucky enough to survive cancer twice. He was the only person who encouraged me through all the chemo. He'd ask me if I could sing and then made sure the show went on, unlike too many other people who canceled everything.”

Friedman was a hoot at the New York Philharmonic's New Year's Eve tribute to Hamlisch, a concert he had been scheduled to conduct and which was broadcast on PBS.

“Everybody who knew Marvin knew he was a larger-than-life character. He was intelligent, extraordinarily exacting and perspicacious, one of the ‘naughties' in the best possible sense,” she says. “In the middle of making something important and pressurized, he'd make you crack up with a one-liner.”

Pittsburgh audiences knew his extraordinarily quick mind, not only from ad-libbed gems during chats with performers on stage. His Rent-a-Composer routine featured songs he created on the spot from a title suggested by a member of the audience. He could and did improvise words and music simultaneously.

The affection for Hamlisch expressed at the time of his death wasn't limited to colleagues. He made friends as easily as breathing.

Robert Baum, of Elizabeth Township, never missed a Hamlisch Pops concert because he knew it would be “super special and different.”

“My wife Janet and I had the great pleasure of having lunch twice with Marvin at the Duquesne Club,” Baum says. “The thing that amazed me about Marvin Hamlisch, with all his awards and recognition and honors, was that this genius of music sitting across the table was so easy-going and natural. I couldn't believe we were there, one on one with Marvin, and felt almost like he was a good friend. He was as funny at lunch as he was on stage. Even though he was serious in his answers, he presented them in his special way.”

Arnaz knew Hamlisch from her early 20s, first working with him on an ABC television special. She was just starting her career, low on the totem pole and late in the rehearsal schedule. Hamlisch stayed until 2 a.m. to accompany in rehearsal.

Later, when Arnaz was working with the composer on “They're Playing Our Song,” she had a problem with one passage he'd written. When she didn't want him to change the notes, he went ahead, telling her every instrument is different. She says she's sung with more assurance ever since then.

“The man didn't have a nasty bone in his body. He could be adamant about what he wanted and he was professional to the end, but he was such a kind and generous human being,” Arnaz says. “Those are the people, like Mother Teresa, who make a huge statement when they leave the room.”

One can only imagine the jokes Hamlisch would have come up with about being compared with Mother Teresa.

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or

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