The biggest problem Marvin Hamlisch has with the world of symphonic pops is making arrangements.
It's not that his schedule is so jammed that he can't find time to conduct concerts like the ones he's leading with the Baltimore Symphony this week (his final stint as the BSO's SuperPops conductor). Nor does he have difficulty booking guest musicians; as he puts it, "When I'm making my calendar each year, I start out with blank pages. If someone wants to work with me, I can always find a time that fits."
No, the biggest problem Hamlisch has with pops concerts is finding orchestral arrangements of the songs he wants to perform.
"It is very hard to take tunes - just tunes that have been written since 1970 - and get a version of them written for orchestra," he says.
At the moment, Hamlisch is sitting in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown. A tall, beefy, bespectacled man with graying hair and an affable demeanor, he looks like just another businessman with his white shirt, blue blazer and neatly pressed khakis - the only difference being that he's not carrying a cell phone or briefcase.
Still, Hamlisch isn't completely anonymous. When the Four Seasons' lounge pianist begins his shift midway through our conversation, one of the first tunes he strikes up is Hamlish's "The Way We Were," the 1973 movie theme that was a chart-topping hit for Barbra Streisand. Then again, maybe it's just coincidence. After all, "The Way We Were" is just the sort of tuneful evergreen a lounge pianist anywhere would be likely to play.
It's also an ideal number for a symphonic pops concert - which brings us back to Hamlisch's point about the dearth of usable pops arrangements. "There is no such thing as 'The Way We Were' written for orchestra," he says. "Yes, I have a version of it that I do, but I play the piano on it. This is why you'll have the same people doing the same programs in a lot of places, because you only have a finite supply of music."
This isn't a problem that conductors working within the classical repertoire have to worry about. Be it a score by Tchaikovsky or Takemitsu, finding the parts for an orchestral performance is never a problem. But unless orchestrators start actively scoring interesting, entertaining orchestral versions of today's popular melodies, pops concerts are going to wind up with a serious repertory shortage.
"In the heyday of the Boston Pops, they hired great orchestrators," he says. "That's where Leroy Anderson made it." Anderson was the man behind such favorites as "The Syncopated Clock" and "Sleigh Ride" - pieces originally written specifically for the Boston Pops Orchestra.
Hamlisch thinks that the only way for today's pops programs to get similar material is to make it possible for modern Leroy Andersons to make a living.
"I maintain that if a composer didn't need the money or didn't have an assignment, he wouldn't write," he says. "He'd just sit around, and do whatever. But if they said at the court to Mozart, 'Look, we gotta have a string quartet, and we gotta have it Thursday,' chances are he's going to write it. I think it's the same thing with most people in music. They'd say to Leroy Anderson, 'We need a curtain-raiser, and we need it for next Sunday.' Boom. And now he starts to write."
Hamlisch is quite passionate on the subject, going so far as to suggest that someone bankroll a network of orchestrators. "Whoever does that will clean up," he says, laughing.
Still, there was a time when he never would have imagined himself fretting over such things. It wasn't that he didn't care about symphonic pops. It was just that when he started , he saw himself as a composer, not a conductor.
Certainly, he had the right training, having been one of the youngest students ever to enroll at the Juilliard conservatory in New York. He cut his teeth on classical music, knows the orchestra inside out and understands what makes a composition work - be it a pop song or a symphony.
But at the same time, Hamlisch says, "I happen to love popular music. I just do." Indeed, he's as likely to refer to MTV as to Cole Porter, and speaks enthusiastically about artists as wide-ranging as the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan; Reba McEntire and Lyle Lovett; or Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera.
"I treat popular music with the same respect as if I were doing Bach or Beethoven," he adds. "In some of my concerts now, I'm starting to bring in much more classical music than I've ever done before, trying to show they both can be on the same rung. I will say, 'Here's a popular composer of his day, and this is what he wrote.' "
As a popular composer of his own day, Hamlisch has been responsible for a few hits, although not always of the Top-40 variety. In fact, the only time he made the charts was with a song he hadn't written: Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer," which he rescued from obscurity and slipped into the soundtrack of "The Sting."
These days, Hamlisch is doing rescue work of a different order. As he sees it, the greatest thing about the symphonic pops repertoire is that "it perpetuates music that you can't hear anywhere else." And these days, that means the songs of the great Broadway musicals.
"When I was growing up in New York, there was a station on the dial where you would just hear Broadway shows," he says. He positively glows as he invokes the memory of some anonymous voice announcing, "And now today, here's 'The Most Happy Fella.' " At which point the station would play the entire original cast album of Frank Loesser's "The Most Happy Fella."
"I don't know where you'd hear 'The Most Happy Fella' today - unless you went to a pops concert," he says.
What bothers Hamlisch most about the way these older Broadway scores are being ignored is that there's a real chance that this music may be forgotten. "The older generation still loves that music, but the younger generation doesn't know it," he says. "I think it's important to carry on that tradition. "
Nor does he believe that youthful indifference is the reason songs by the Gershwin brothers, or Rodgers and Hammerstein, or Lerner and Lowe, are falling by the wayside. "You can't really say it's the kids' fault," he says. "If a kid is not hearing this music, how would he know to want it? Most kids today, if you say to them, 'George Gershwin,' they are hard-pressed to know who that was. And Cole Porter? Next to impossible."
This is where Marvin Hamlisch, pops missionary, steps to the fore. He says that pops concerts are perhaps the only true family entertainment left in the music industry. Because they draw from popular music, they provide kids with melodies they know and can relate to. And because pops concerts rely on orchestras instead of drum machines or electric guitars, they present a sound that's safe for both parents and grandparents.
Getting the grandparents is the easy part. Getting the kids isn't hard, either. It's the parents - those folks in their 30s and 40s - who seem to take the most convincing.
"You try to maintain the audience you have, but bring in younger people," he says. And by younger people, he means baby boomers - a group he's actively trying to attract. "I mean, I'm looking at whatever it takes. Any angle."
Granted, it's not as if Hamlisch is playing to empty seats. During his three-year stint with the Baltimore Symphony, his SuperPops concerts have routinely performed to packed houses for four shows a week. But that hardly reflects symphonic pops' full potential, Hamlisch says. In a city like Baltimore, he thinks that pops programs could run monthly without overextending audience interest.
He admits that getting good guests can be a challenge.
"One problem is that a lot of people I would love to see do pops, don't do pops yet," he says. "I think Kenny G would be this side of spectacular. A Kenny G concert with orchestra? I'd pay to see that."
But pops concerts are far less dependant on the marquee value of soloists than are more traditional symphonic programs.
"Doing popular music, you can fill up an audience without a star," he says. "You say the word 'Broadway,' and you'll do well. These days, Irish music, 'Riverdance' - bang!
"My theory is, try to find a theme, and program around it - as opposed to a regular concert, where you need your name person, your EvgenyKissin, or Midori, or Yo-Yo Ma." Hamlisch also believes that pops concerts provide an important point of entry for listeners. Because the music is tuneful and contemporary, pops concerts can help wary concertgoers get over their fear of orchestral music - and maybe give them a taste for the hard stuff, like Beethoven or Bach.
"Orchestras are realizing that they need to program pops, because pops music tends to bring in a crowd," he says. "And it's a different crowd. My theory is, if you can get that crowd to come to the pops, and you can get even 10 percent of them to mosey into a Mozart concert, then you've accomplished something."
What: Marvin Hamlisch conducts the Baltimore Symphony SuperPops
Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.
When: Today, 2 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, June 9-10, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, June 11, at 3 p.m.
Tickets: $21-$50 today, $25-$59 Friday through Sunday