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Pittsburgh symphony, guests pay masterful tribute to Hamlisch

| Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013, 7:11 a.m.

Seven months after Marvin Hamlisch's last concerts at Heinz Hall and five months after his death, the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops and a host of guest artists paid tribute to him at an emotional concert Tuesday night.

A large photographic portrait of Hamlisch, taken late in life, was placed on the rear wall of the stage in the downtown concert hall. Performers during the concert devoted to his music often saluted the portrait before acknowledging the audience's applause.

One wonders if Hamlisch knew, or could possibly have known, how deeply loved he was.

Of course he knew he was the only composer apart from Richard Rodgers to have won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony plus a Pulitzer Prize. The concert offered another experience of the vast and vibrant musical legacy he created, which Pittsburgh audiences had the privilege of experiencing over the seventeen years he led the Pops. One couldn't help remembering during the overture to “A Chorus Line” the inimitable flair he brought to this music when he was on this podium.

Speeches by symphony board chairman Richard Simmons and Terre Blair, the composer's widow, provided some valuable reflections on Hamlisch, the man. She mentioned that he regarded Pittsburgh as his second home, as he often said, for three reasons: the great orchestra he loved, the wonderful people of Pittsburgh and the great shopping and restaurants. Some of the performers also took time to speak of Hamlisch, with Lucie Arnaz offering the most eloquent thoughts.

The emotional impact of the concert kept growing throughout the lengthy program, which lasted nearly three hours. Maria Friedman's performance of “If You Remember Me” from “The Champ” early on the first half was riveting and poignant. It was followed by pianist Kevin Cole singing the very personal song “If You Really Knew Me,” which includes the line: “Did the man make the music or the music make this man?”

The only music not by Hamlisch performed Tuesday night was Leonard Bernstein's “Somewhere” from “West Side Story,” which he chose to be played at his wedding. It was performed in tribute by the orchestra without conductor.

The second half opened with a few selections from “They're Playing Our Song” performed by Robert Klein and Arnaz, who starred in the original cast. Klein's voice may have seen better days, but he still made “Falling” a wonderful experience. And he was the only performer to offer a witty quip, a la Hamlisch. Arnaz offered a mesmerizing account of “I Still Believe in Love.”

Another emotional highpoint followed immediately when conductor J. Ernest Green led the orchestra in the theme from “Sophie's Choice,” graced by Anne Martindale Williams' eloquent cello solos.

Two other symphony musicians had prominent roles. Concertmaster Mark Huggins gave a masterful performance of “I Cannot Hear the City” from “Sweet Smell of Success,” as deeply committed as technically admirable — and at end saluted Hamlisch's portrait before turning to the applauding audience.

Harold Smoliar, a devoted jazz pianist as well as the orchestra's English horn player, played piano in many numbers, as he had for Hamlisch over the years. He even has memories of playing piano with Hamlisch in concert. Smoliar's artistry Tuesday night included decisive and sensitive shaping of line, with a wonderful sense of time and ensemble.

After Friedman returned for a biting performance of “Nothing” from “A Chorus Line,” Idina Menzel gave blazing accounts of “At the Ballet” and “What I Did for Love” from the same show.

The concert did not neglect Hamlisch's devotion to young people and young performers. The All Star College Chorus was conducted by Robert Page in a beautiful performance of “Through the Eyes of Love.” Later the chorus sang the idealistic “One Song,” during which it and vocal soloist Brian d'Arcy James were joined by two young singers discovered by Hamlisch, Rocky Paterra and Vanessa Campagna.

The evening was bittersweet. His artistic legacy will endure, but Hamlisch is gone. His enthusiasms were boundless, irresistible and youthful long after he was young. His wit was an astonishing delight, most often found in pertinent adlibs but also manifested in a hilarious recorded reading of the statutory warning about emergency exits. And unlike his creative output, Hamlisch's generosity to those he encountered in life can never be catalogued because it was so often expressed privately and is now part of his lore.

The man who made the music lived life with a joy that is inspiring.

Business executives sometimes say that everyone is replaceable. No one in Heinz Hall Tuesday night could agree. Our sense of loss is mitigated by recognition of how fortunate we were to have known him for so many years.

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

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