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Fun-filled Pops concert engages audience in playful creativity

Friday's Holiday Pops concert in Kleinhans Music Hall was a bit more interactive than Holiday Pops concerts past.

Still center stage, of course, were the lushly arranged Christmas tunes -- and one for Hanukkah -- that were beautifully performed by the Buffalo Philharmonic under the brilliant direction of Principal Pops Conductor Marvin Hamlisch. Then there was the world-famous Empire Brass contributing its share of intricate horn arrangements and glorious vocal accompaniment by the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus.

But this year, the audience was required to do a little more -- just a little -- than soak up the fun.

Aside from his immense talents as a conductor, songwriter, composer and pianist, Hamlisch is an engaging entertainer, indulging in a barrage of quick-witted banter with his audience.

He invited the audience to come up with the title for a new Christmas tune, the lyrics and melody to which he then proceeded to create on the spot. It would have been great if the audience had been prepared in advance in order to come up with something more challenging than "White Christmas," which Irving Berlin has already written, or "Green Christmas," which is . . . well, weird.

Fortunately, a quicker-witted Lutheran pastor in the audience threw out "Christmas Must Be Tonight," and, right there, Hamlisch went to work on it, supplying a credible melody and impromptu lyrics that included a funny line about global warming. What a joy it is to see a master at work.

Hamlisch, who took over as the BPO's principal pops conductor nearly four years ago, is more than up to it.

Over the years, he has written memorable scores for numerous Hollywood films, grabbing Academy Awards for his compositions for "The Way We Were" and "The Sting." And on the Great White Way, Hamlisch scored one of his biggest successes, "A Chorus Line," a collaboration with legendary Broadway director/choreographer and Buffalo native Michael Bennett.

Hamlisch also conducts the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra and the San Diego Symphony. He has won a Pulitzer Prize and is one of only a few people to win all four major U.S. performing awards -- Emmy, Grammy and Tony awards, along with his Oscars.

A new Christmas tune would appear to be a piece of cake for a musician of Hamlisch's pedigree.

"Now I know there's a lot of Christmas tunes out there, but it seems to me there's always room for one more," Hamlisch said before launching into his own composition "Take Me to Christmas Past," complete with piano solos by Hamlisch and sung Friday by the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus.

The program included the orchestra performing the Suite from "The Nutcracker," "O Holy Night" and "White Christmas." A highlight was a lovely performance of "What Child Is This?" by Pierre Roy on the oboe.

The internationally renowned Empire Brass Quintet also got interactive Friday, inviting two audience members to accompany it with finger cymbals on a number called "Ding Dong Merrily on High."

Founding member Rolf Smedvig performed on the trumpet along with fellow trumpeter Marc Brian Reese, Michelle Perry on French horn, Mark Hetzler on trombone and Kenneth Amis on the tuba.

The show repeats today at 2:30 p.m.

e-mail: hmcneil@buffnews.com

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Concert Review

Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra "Holiday Pops" on Friday and Saturday, with another performance at 2:30 p.m. today. With conductor Marvin Hamlisch

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