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Marvin Hamlisch

Pops Music Innovator who led the Pittsburgh Pops for 17 Years
Marvin Hamlisch,  the principal conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony’s Pop series for seventeen years was beloved by the fans and musicians of the Pittsburgh Pops.  He won over audiences and musicians with his animated personality, inside show business stories and clever one liners. An innovative entertainer Hamlisch brought new life to the staid Pops concert world. He attracted thousands of new concert goers in Pittsburgh and several other cities where he programmed and conducted Pop symphonies. 

In the announcement of his contract extension with the Pittsburgh Pops through 2015 Hamlisch wrote "I have always felt that Pittsburgh is my second home, and the more I come back, I feel like it's my first home."

After an award winning career as a composer of music for Broadway and the movies, Marvin Hamlisch came to Pittsburgh in 1995 for his first permanent conducting job.  The Pittsburgh Symphony hired him to revamp their Pops Series.

In an interview with the Pittsburgh Post Gazette PSO managing director Gideon Toeplitz said "We hired him because ... he could update the pops presentation to what we feel the present and future is, involving interview, talk and all that -- not just putting your back to the audience and conducting music."

Hamlisch came to Pittsburgh with a vision for a new type of Pops series.  Traditionally most Pops programs sponsored by major symphonies were created to attract and convert popular music fans into serious classical music aficionados who would regularly attend classical concerts. They wooed pop music fans with lighter popular classical pieces and performances by Pop stars.

Hamlisch brought a fresh new approach to Pops. He did not want to convert pop fans into classical music lovers. He wanted to entertain and delight popular music fans with popular music. Hamlisch attracted new younger  fans to the Pops and delighted the traditional over 50 symphony subscribers. It was a good time for all.  Using his Broadway showmanship and wit he evolved the Pops from a feeder system for classical concerts into an enjoyable independent entertainment form.

In the traditional Pop format originated by Arthur Fielder and the Boston Pops, the orchestra played a 30 minute set of light classics in the first half of the concert. In the second half the orchestra performed popular music backing a guest Pop artist. Hamlisch knew that the traditional two halves were unrelated and less entertaining for pop music fans. In an interview with the Pittsburgh Post Gazette Hamlisch explained "The old format gives you the wrong appetizer for the meal. ''It's like going to a Chinese restaurant for dinner and starting off with tuna carpaccio! "  Hamlisch improved the Pops concert format by offering full themed shows of popular music with guess soloists appearing throughout. He strove to make his concerts "a total theatrical experience".

In one of his first Pittsburgh Pops concerts titled "Love Night" opera singer Marilyn Horne sang love songs arias and pop love songs. Dancers performed to love songs and actors performed famous love scenes. He used this themed format in all of his Pops concerts including shows with Doo Wop, Jazz, and Disney movie music along with shows that paid tribute to the music of the Beatles, Abba, Pittsburgh's Henry Mancini, George Gershwin, John Williams, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Irving Berlin and other composers.

Critic Mark Kanny of the Post-Gazette wrote, "The only problem when concerts are of this quality is that tickets become hard to obtain. Because if you love popular music, you gotta hear Hamlisch at Heinz Hall."       

Hamlisch increased the popularity of the Pittsburgh Symphony nationwide taking Pittsburgh Pops on tour performing concert series with James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Andre Bocelli and other artists in Philadelphia, Washington, Hartford, Saratoga Springs and other cities.  He also conducted them on a series of PBS specials in 1996 and 1997.

Hamlisch's approach to Pops was a smashing success in Pittsburgh both artistically and financially. The 1994-95 Pops season before Hamlisch took over the Pops had total tickets sales of 56,000 that were well below the capacity of Heinz Hall. By the 1999-2000 season the total ticket sales grew to 70,000 at 94 percent of capacity. Hamlisch reversed an 8 year decline in sales rescuing the PSO. The Pittsburgh Pops grossed $2.6 million in 1999.  Sales for the classical series grew also.  While other major orchestras in Philadelphia, Detroit, Tampa and Charlotte struggled to stay afloat the Pittsburgh Symphony thrived with the help of Marvin Hamlisch and his many loyal Pops fans.

The Stars Shine at the Pops

Hamlisch's Pittsburgh Pops concerts included an array of  local and national artists. To perform with the Pittsburgh Pop Hamlisch brought in a host of Broadway and Pop stars including Patti LuPone, Bebe Neuwirth, Andrea Bocelli, Marilyn Horne, Shirley Jones, Chris Botti, Bill Conti, Johnny Mathis, Burt Bacharach, Natalie MacMaster, Lucie Arnaz and Robert Klein, Julie Budd, Melba Moore, Tony Orlando, John Pizzarelli, the  Platters, Sha Na N, Toni Tennille and the Captain, John Raitt, the Bobs and John Tesh.

Spreading the Wealth

With his success in Pittsburgh several other symphonies hired Hamlisch to program and conduct their Pops series including the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington D.C , Milwaukee, Dallas, Seattle, Pasadena Baltimore and the San Diego Symphony. He was slated to add the Philadelphia Orchestra to his busy schedule in 2013.

Mentoring and Showcasing Pittsburgh Musicians

Harmlisch sought out, nutured and showcased talented Pittsburgh musicians in his Pops concerts. He held open auditions for young instrumentalist and vocalists and show cased the most promising. In his first season Hamlisch presented 'Star Night' featuring new talents Kimberly Steinhauer, violinist Jennyrose Spence and three other local performers. He offered several "Search for a Star" concerts that were were sold out.

Hamlisch mentored and promoted singer Vanessa Campagne at age ten having her perform with the Pittsburgh Pops, the Buffalo Philharmonic Symphony, and the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC,  Marvin Hamlisch, Vanessa, and Roberta Flack performed in concert to honor of First Lady Laura Bush at the Kuwaiti Embassy in Washington, DC.  Marvin presented rock singer B.E. Taylor in concert in a "A Salute to America" in June of 2010.  

Marvin included jazz guitarist Joe Negri frequently in his Pops concerts helping Negri to gain national recognition.  Negri appeared on the Pittsburgh Pops 1997 CD release  “Cinema Serenade” on Sony Music with Itzhag Pearlman and conductor John Williams.  After performing at the Pittsburgh Pops with Negri, Singer Michael Feinstein hired Joe to record with him on his 2010 CD release and to perform with him at the Newport Jazz Festival..

Hamlisch served as the distinguished artist in residence teaching master classes at Point Park Univesity in 2011 and 2012.  He also gave lectures and performance at the Lincoln Park Performing Arts School in Midland. Pa.

Hamlisch's Impact on Pittsburgh and the PSO

Statement from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra:

"Marvin Hamlisch was a true and great friend who absolutely loved the PSO, our audiences and this city. He considered it his second hometown and it clearly showed, whether he was taking in a Pirates game, dining at his favorite restaurants or patronizing stores......We are indeed fortunate that he spent 17 seasons with us as our PNC Pops principal conductor, sharing his talents and creating memorable programs. But there was another side to Marvin. He was a gentleman who always found a way to brighten our lives with his sharp wit, wonderful sense of humor, kindness and grace."

Beginnings as a Child Prodigy

Marvin Frederick Hamlisch born was in New York City on June 2, 1944.  His parents immigrated to America from Vienna.  Max, his father, was an accordion player.  At age 5 Marvin played songs on the piano that he learned by ear from the radio.  He was born with perfect pitch.  Marvin entered the Julliard School of music a child prodigy at age 7.  At Julliard he trained to be a classical pianist.  As a teen he performed classical concerts in New York City.  But his first love was Broadway show tunes and popular music.  

Broadway Pianist and Pop Song Writer

Marvin Hamlisch became a Broadway rehearsal pianist landing his first big job in the production of “Funny Girl” with Barbra Streisand in 1964. He also rehearsed the shows “Fade Out-Fade In,” “Golden Rainbow” and “Henry, Sweet Henry”. 

At age 21 Hamlisch composed the song “Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows with lyricist Howard Liebling that was a Top 20 hit in 1965 for Lesley Gore. 

Hamlisch played many parties in New York where he met many entertainers. Groucho Marx hired him as his pianist / straight man on took him on tour in 1972 playing concerts in San Francisco, Iowa, and Carnegie Hall in New York.

Movie Music Maestro

The movie producer Sam Spiegel heard Hamlisch playing piano at a party and hired him to score the film “The Swimmer” in 1968. Hamlisch moved to Los Angeles to become a composer and arranger of movie scores. In 1969 he scored “The April Fools” and Woody Allen’s "Take the Money and Run”. Writing two to three films scores per year his film career took off. He received his first Academy award nomination in 1972.

Hamlisch became a major award winning superstar in 1973 when he won three Oscars for the scores of the “Sting” and “The Way We Were”. Barabra Streisand’s recording of "The Way Were" was a million selling hit. Hamlisch started a major Ragtime revival with his recordings of the music of Scott Joplins in the Sting soundtrack. Hamlisch’s album “the Entertainer” on which he performed Scott Joplin’s rags was a huge hit.

Broadway Tony Winner

With his success in the movies Hamlisch turned his attention to Broadway. The very first musical score that he wrote was one of the most successful musicals of all time: The Chorus Line. It opened on Broadway in May of 1975 and ran into the 1990’s. Hamlisch won a Tony and Pulitzer prize for the Chorus Line and it was a very successful movie. His song “What I Did for Love” from the show was recorded by hundreds of artists. Hamlisch followed up with another Broadway hit, “They’re Playing Our Song” in 1979, “Jean Seberg” (1983), “Smile” (1986), “The Goodbye Girl” (1993), “Sweet Smell of Success” (2002) and “Imaginary Friends” (2002).

Second Career as a Pops Conductor

After the success of “A Chorus Line” his agent recommended that he conduct symphonic concerts of his music just as George Gershwin and Henry Mancini had done. Hamlisch began his second career as a conductor in 1994 when he directed Barbra Streisand’s tour of the United States and England, and her Emmy winning PBS television special. Hes guest conducted the Pittsburgh Pops in 1994, signed a contract with the PSO in 1995 and stayed for seventeen years. He loved Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Symphony. 

Marvin Hamlisch's success with the PSO mirrored the success of Victor Herbert with the PSO a century before in 1898.  Herbert was a flamboyant composer and conductor who inspired both musicians and audiences with his great enthusiasm.  Ticket sales soared as audiences flocked to hear Victor conduct a repertoire that included his own popular works.  The PSO became a major American orchestra under his direction and toured the U.S.  Like the Victor Herbert Hamlisch greatly increased the popularity of the Pittsburgh Symphony with his colorful personality and performances of his compositions and arrangements of popular music.  Marvin Hamlisch's dedicated Pops programming expanded the PSO audience attracting many new attracted popular music fans. His work kept the PSO alive.

Final Works

In the summer of 2012 Hamlisch was hard at work on a two new musicals “Gotta Dance” and the"Nutty Professor". He was writing the score for an HBO film on Liberace titled “Behind the Candelabra.” But his work was cut short.  Marvin Hamlisch died from a sudden illness on August 6 at the age of 68.  He left behind a legacy of great songs, movie sound tracks, Broadway shows, and pop music classics.

Award Winning Composer / Arranger

Marvin Hamlisch was one of only two musicians to win every major prize in the entertainment and media industries. The other was Richard Rogers. He won three Oscars, four Emmys, four Grammys, a Tony, three Golden Globe awards, several Gold records, and the Pulitzer for “A Chorus Line”. Among the most celebrated movie and Broadway composers he ranks with Pittsburgh’s Henry Mancini and Stephen Sondhiem.

Marvin was also writer of hit pop songs. His first hit was  “Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows" in 1965.  In 1973 Barbara Streisand's recording of his song "The Way We Were" was a million seller.  
He hit the top of the charts again in 1977 with the number 2 song “Nobody Does It Better” written with the lyricist Carole Bayer Sager that performed by Carly Simon as the theme song of the James Bond movie “The Spy Who Loved Me,”. Marvin reached number 1 on soul charts in 1977 with Aretha Franklin’s recording of “Break It to Me Gently” that he co-wrote with Carol Bayer Sager.

Hamlisch wrote the scores for forty feature films including the Sting, The Way We Were, The Spy Who Loved Me, Ordinary People, and Sophie's Choice. He was nominated for 12 Academy awards winning three in 1973 for the Sting and The Way We Were. 

WPXI Story on Hamlisch
Young Broadway Pianist
Oscar Winner
Marvin with Vanessa Campagne