Orchestra week in Central Kentucky continued on some delightful notes Saturday night when composer and conductor Marvin Hamlisch joined the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra for an evening of his and other writers’ classics. (See a photo gallery)
It’s actually been one of those Beatle-esque eight day weeks as the UK Symphony got things started last Saturday night playing most of the three-hour opening ceremonies of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. Then the Vienna Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel came to Danville Monday and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy performed with the Lexington Philharmonic Thursday. The Phil will actually bring the orchestral portion of WEG arts activities to a close Sunday (Oct. 3) when they play the Courthouse Plaza stage for the Spotlight Lexington Festival.
But Saturday’s appearance by Hamlisch as part of the Alltech Fortnight Festival had a casual tone with the wisecracking composer, conductor and pianist commanding the stage with unexpected ease.
Hamlisch took the stage at the Singletary Center for the Arts quickly playing two of his best loved tunes: the title song to the 1973 Barbra Streisand film The Way We Were and Through the Eyes of Love, the theme from the 1978 drama Ice Castles.
It was a quick introduction to Hamlisch’s piano playing style, which took some getting used to, blazing through those timeless melodies in quick bundles. The UK Orchestra and conductor John Nardolillo deserve extra credit for keeping up with Hamlisch’s individual, shifting keyboard performance, particularly after only one rehearsal.
He then noted that the former song won the Oscar for best original song and the later didn’t, though he did misstate what Through the Eyes lost to. It was actually a David Shire song called It Goes Like it Goes from Norma Rae, which would have helped prove Hamlisch’s point that the Academy frequently missed honoring songs that went on to become much better known than the winner (Rainbow Connection from The Muppet Movie also lost that year).
Hamlisch then went on to present a medley of Academy Award losers including Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s The Look of Love from 1967’s Casino Royale and his own Nobody Does it Better from 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me.
The whole evening was a reminder of a time when first rate composition by stage and film writers like Hamlisch and Bacharach and the pop charts were much more in sync.
And while he wisely left iconic vocals of some songs such as The Way We Were to our memories, Hamlisch did bring along a tremendous singer in J. Mark McVey who has sung 2,912 performances as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables in New York, London and other major cities.
His exquisite rendition of Bring Him Home brought the 1,082-person Singeltary Center audience to its feet, and he also sang the Soliloquy from Carousel, Hamlisch’s One Song and a medley of “three songs only four people know,” including another Oscar nominee, Hamlisch’s The Last Time I Felt Like This from the 1978 film Same Time, Next Year.
The music was great, including Hamlisch’s selections of other compositions by writers like Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein and a medley from Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s My Fair Lady. But what was really striking was his ease an emcee offering spontaneous stage patter about horses and bourbon and maybe his most brilliant moment, composing on the spot.
He explained that he often likes to have the title of the song before he composes and thinks regular people often have great ideas for song titles, they just don’t have a composer around to write it. So, he asked the audience for titles and ended up composing two, including one called How Can When Win?
“I think I know what happened,” Hamlisch said, referring to the University of Kentucky football team’s 42-35 loss to Ole Miss – it’s second straight loss – Saturday afternoon, before composing a plaintive tune asking God when victory will come.
In the long list of entertainment scheduled during the Games, Hamlisch’s show may not have jumped out because we primarily know him as a composer. But the evening, as it turned out, was immensely entertaining.