Thursday, August 9, 2012

Marvin Hamlisch, friend and colleague

"Yes or no. . . . . .? YES OR NO?"

This was my introduction to Marvin Hamlisch, as I observed him in rehearsal with the Pittsburgh Symphony. It didn't matter to Marvin who responded -- he just wanted a quick answer -- no discussion, no maybe-this-or-that, no equivocation. Just yes or no. I do not remember the question -- only that several people within earshot were paralyzed with fear, no one daring to respond. From the back of the hall, I wanted to shout out "YES," but never having worked with him, I didn't dare intrude. I hadn't even met him yet.

As I would later learn, Hamlisch trusted that anyone who responded to him had good reason to, whether he liked the answer or not. Which is why I nodded knowingly reading an obituary in which he was described as the consummate pro. People loved his songs, his music for Broadway and film, his stage persona (and that fabulously quick wit). But I will remember him most for his professionalism. If it worked, he was all for it. If it didn't work, fuhgettaboutit. For Marvin, it was as simple as that.

In the mid 1990s, when the Pittsburgh Symphony's annual Holiday program had been lagging, the orchestra asked Marvin to revive it. He had already been Principal Pops Conductor for several years (Pittsburgh got to him before anyone else), and as the Holiday concerts were part of the pops series, he felt partly responsible. But he had never conducted it, and he wasn't going to start now. ("What? A Jew celebrating Christmas? Give me a break!") But the Pittsburgh Pops was his baby, and he wanted it to work, whether or not he was on the podium. So he came up with a story line, which required a funny man and a foil. Kevin Glavin, the comic bass-baritone, would play Santa Claus, and I would be his straight man. The plot (and for many subsequent years) was simple: Will we we get snow for Christmas? And would Santa be able to deliver it?

A script was created, and every day, Kevin and I rehearsed it for Marvin. The opening set the tone: after I conducted Leroy Anderson's Christmas Festival Overture, Santa would make his first entrance, running on stage, out of breath, stopping dead in his tracks with a frown on his face, facing the audience, saying

"Do you know how hard it is finding a parking place in this town? There was no room on the roof for Rudy and the guys, so we had to find a spot in Three Rivers Stadium . . . and they made me feed the meter!"

It was classic Hamlisch. The penultimate number featured Kevin (still as Santa) singing Silent Night in his rich, beautiful baritone, and then Marvin had us segue into Irving Berlin's White Christmas, performed by chorus and orchestra. Only one problem (gulp): Marvin wanted snow. Maybe not the real, honest-to-goodness kind, but his show business sense demanded it.

The stagehands were not happy. I had come to depend on these guys, and trusted them immensely, but they were incredulous to Marvin's demand. ("What, SNOW? How we gonna do THAT?") There was a lot of back and forth, many naysayers, but Marvin was adamant. The show had to have snow.

This was the part of Marvin that few understood. If he was the only one in the room who believed something, he was unshakeable. This was his genius, his foresight to know what would work with an audience. The musicians of the Pittsburgh Symphony were not always pleased with Marvin's rehearsal style, because they felt he made too many decisions at the last minute. It belied the enormous amount of preparation he would put into a program. But once he heard the orchestra play it, he knew. And if a song was thirty seconds too long, he would snip away. Even if a song was ten seconds too long, he'd cut out ten seconds somewhere. Timing and pacing were everything to him. When he took over the Pittsburgh Pops, he transformed what had been merely orchestral concerts into dramatic musical presentations. With Marvin, it was always about the show.

One of his programs was 'Music at the Movies.' After entering the stage in his customary white tie and tails (a tall man, Marvin looked particularly elegant in a penguin suit, and knew it), and began to regale the audience, "Don't you long for the days of old, when you could go to a movie with your true love and it meant something? Remember what it was like to see the newest movie with Cary Grant and Kathryn Hepburn?" He went on: "How many of you remember your first kiss? Was it at the movies? Perhaps, by chance, was it while you were watching this movie?"

After which Marvin would spin around, ascend the podium, give a big downbeat, and out of the orchestra came . . . . shrieking strings from Psycho. Marvin had set them up, and while half of the audience gasped, the other half was doubled over in laughter. It was classic Hamlisch.

During the late 1990s, Marvin would often have to open the Pittsburgh Pops in late October when his beloved Yankees were playing in the World Series. It was agonizing for Marvin to be conducting while Jeter and Rivera were doing their heroics, not knowing what was going on. So he kept some new gizmo close by his music stand -- this was years before the iPhone -- that would give him inning-by-inning results. It drove the orchestra staff crazy, but the audiences never minded. That was just Marvin, being Marvin. Every once in a while, some admirer in the audience would yell something to him, and he would whip around and respond, sometimes carrying on a conversation with the person for the next few minutes. He made everyone feel like he was talking to you.

Small wonder that at the time of his death, six different orchestras had Marvin as their pops guy, and Philadelphia was next to join the club. Everyone wanted a piece of him.

But on this day, the stagehands wanted a different piece of him. Ultimately, someone came up with the idea of placing a faux snow machine high above the stage, so the 'snow' would fall onto the front rows of seats. It was completely hokey, corn pone to the hilt. But it didn't matter. When Marvin saw it, he was ecstatic. "Perfect! They're gonna love it!" After the dress rehearsal, some were still shaking their heads, but when the Mendelssohn Choir sang " . . . and may all your Christmases be white," the snow came down, and the audience oohed and ahhed.

As Marvin knew all along, the audiences loved it.

I last caught up with Marvin when he was a guest during my last season with the Hartford Symphony. A year or two before that, he was here for some other shindig, and my daughter and I took him to lunch at Trumbull Kitchen. The waiter was completely agog, but Marvin soon had the guy feeling like he lived down the street. And with my daughter, Carolyn, a performer who is still just one step away from her big break on the music theatre scene, Marvin could not have been more generous, taking her questions, listening to her intently. He was such a mensch.

It's so hard to imagine him gone. I already miss him so.
I learned so much from him.
He was,
and always will be,

. . . . . . . . . . . . . a singular sensation.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Olympic Tennis: Serena Williams and Andy Murray

Last week, Serena Williams defeated Maria Sharapova for Olympic Gold. It wasn't even close. Then yesterday, Andy Murray, who had never defeated Roger Federer in a Grand Slam final, annihilated the Swiss star in three straight sets.

How did this happen? How did two reigning stars (Sharapova, no. 2 in the world, and Federer, presently no. 1, and arguably the best ever) lose so emphatically on the grandest stage in tennis, Wimbledon?

You can't blame it on age -- Williams is 30, as is Federer.

Nor can you say it was a Wimbledon letdown -- Williams had just won at the All English Club last month, as had Federer.

Can't say it was entirely the home crowd advantage, either -- Murray did not benefit from it in his final match against Federer at Wimbledon.

Nor can you say that these are two seasoned winners, as this is entirely new territory for Murray.

You could say that Federer was tired from his marathon semi-final match against Juan del Potro, which took 4 1/2 hours and a 19-17 third set. You could say that Wimbledon might have been different it had been played outdoors, Unlike the Olympics final -- where Federer never seemed to adjust to the wind -- the Wimbledon final was mostly played while the roof was closed. (As McEnroe said yesterday, "Federer would love a little rain right now . . . .")

The story lines for both winners could not be more different. Murray, winless in grand slams, had something to prove. On the other hand, Williams is playing as if she wants to dethrone Chris Evert as the best American player ever.

But nothing can explain how completely dominant both Williams and Murray were in their matches. Sharapova and Federer were never in it, and when is the last time you can say that about two grand slam finals in succession?

The Tokyo Quartet plays Beethoven

Over the last several weeks, I have attended several concerts at Yale's Chamber Music Festival in Norfolk. When I walked into the vaunted Shed last Saturday, I knew we were in for something special.

Audiences have long voted with their feet. I'm sure the Norfolk Festival was hoping for good crowds when they announced that all of the string quartets of Beethoven would be played this summer. I certainly was excited.

So it was disappointing to see at early performances that attendance was not what one may have hoped for. Only one line of cars lined the road.

But on Saturday evening, there were four lines, plus a big blue bus that blew exhaust onto our picnic. My friend, Darko Tresnjak, the new Artistic Director of Hartford Stage (and a bigger fan of music than most musicians), was there. Jim Remis, Chair of the Hartford Symphony Board, was there with his wife, Nancy, situated in their customary front row seats. Many festival students -- noticeably missing in earlier concerts -- were there in droves.

This night was different, because it was the first time all summer we would hear Beethoven played by the Tokyo Quartet, which recently announced that they will disband after next summer. Because of this, every concert they play from hereon will be imbued with a certain aura, a quality that bespeaks of an end to an era.

I have long wondered how string quartets thrive and survive, year in and year out. If a relationship between two people is fraught with varying degrees of wonder and peril, how does it work among four strong-willed individuals? How do they get along?

The Tokyo Quartet, established in 1969, is not unlike other quartets who have gone through personnel changes over the course of their history. Only the violist, Kazuhide Isomura (who, in an uncharacteristic solo turn, played affectingly two weeks prior), is a charter member. The two most recent additions, the Canadian violinist Martin Beaver, and the English cellist Clive Greensmith, are brilliant chamber musicians who have blended in with Messrs. Ikeda and Isomura with extraordinary panache. I remember hearing the Tokyo Quartet in residence at Yale in the mid 1980s. They were great then, and they are great now.

Having said that, these four men are not the least bit nostalgic. On a very hot and humid evening, they came to play. And from the first sounds of Beethoven's String Quartet in A minor, op. 132, it was glorious, each player entering, one at a time. (The trio of the second movement must have been a favorite of Brahms, for his Third Symphony is positively infected with the same rhythmic discombobulation. Brahms might have loved knowing this Beethoven work would share program space with a work of his.) The central slow movement, longest of the five, had the audience rapt. I was not certain how they could go on from there.

The second half, with clarinetist David Schifrin joining the four to perform the Brahms Quintet, was beautifully played. After the last notes, the audience were as one, spellbound, unwilling to break the silence. In years of concert going, it was the longest silence after a performed piece I have ever experienced.

But I will long remember the Beethoven.

Gabby Douglas and the Star Spangled Banner

I am among the millions who were enthralled by gymnast Gabrielle Douglas's recent performances at the Olympics. Most of us were already captivated by her during the team event, when the newly dubbed Fab Five took gold.

During the medal ceremony, all five took the top pedestal, but Miss Douglas frowned throughout the playing of the National Anthem. I wondered at her apparent discontent in part because her expression was in such stark relief to her four teammates, each of whom were clearly moved by the playing of their country's anthem.

But then when Miss Douglas was back on the podium two days later for her individual gold, she was all smiles. Curious.

When I shared this story with a friend, she suggested the possibility that Douglas might be a Jehovah's Witness. It made me recall opening every Hartford Symphony season with the Star Spangled Banner, and how one member of the orchestra always asked to be excused from playing it, for religious reasons. (Every year, I granted the request.)

Which made me wonder -- surely there has been a gold medalist in Olympic history who espouses to the beliefs of Jehovah's Witnesses, and how would that person have handled such a predicament?

Not unlike that Chariots of Fire star who would not run on sabbath.

Or the San Francisco Symphony during the tenure of Herbert Blomstedt, a Seventh Day Adventist who would not conduct on Friday evenings.