The Way He Was: Remembering Marvin Hamlisch, the Man and the Music
By Robin Tabachnik
04 Jan 2013
Marvin Hamlisch's path began crossing the Philharmonic's in May 2008 when he made his debut with Broadway's Greatest Showstoppers, a program he devised, conducted, and hosted as a valentine to the golden age of the great American musical — a tradition to which he was a true heir, though he would never have claimed so for himself. He would return two more times, with cleverly contrived concerts that melded the best of showmanship with what this Orchestra has to offer, culling from all aspects of his multifaceted artistry.
I first interviewed Marvin in 2005 for a magazine article on famous alumni of The Juilliard School. We immediately hit it off: I'd loved every note he'd ever written, of course, but beyond that, we both came from the New York Jewish musical background that was a nationality unto itself. When I spoke with him again for a Playbill article anticipating his 2009 New York Philharmonic benefit concert titled New York Moments, which he created as a musical portrait of his beloved hometown (and in which he would lead the orchestra of his hero, Leonard Bernstein), our conversations ranged further. We discussed favorite New York places to stroll and restaurants, and he told me about his Juilliard jury exams: he'd gone to the roof of the old Claremont Avenue building to unwind beforehand only to have the door lock behind him. He finally arrived at those exams covered in soot one minute before he was to play.
Whenever I interviewed Marvin, he took great joy praising each singer on the program, providing biographical details of every one of them. That warmth of feeling has always been returned. Star mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade ranks him among the great American conductors and composers with whom she has collaborated over 30-odd years in the opera and concert houses of the world. "What distinguishes Marvin's songs," she says, "are his drop-dead gorgeous melodies that are so very vocal. He is a great part of the American songbook — the true modern day link to the tradition of Kern, Porter, and Gershwin."
Hamlisch himself took pride in those tunes, answering the question as to how he'd liked to be remembered in music history books by saying, "I always try to ground my listener in a good melody. Nowadays it's considered old-fashioned, but for me it remains the most important thing."