Seattle Symphony Pops review by Tom Keogh: Marvin Hamlisch made his debut as the Symphony's new Pops Conductor in a rousing program full of tight solos by students from the area's high-school jazz programs and the electrifying U.S. Army Jazz Ambassadors.

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Concert Review |

“There’s a lady in the second row using binoculars. How much more do you have to see me?”

With that bit of borscht belt ribbing, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Marvin Hamlisch made his debut Thursday as Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s Principal Pops Conductor.

It would not be the last time Hamlisch punctuated the evening’s program of outstanding jazz with his familiar wit. When he asked members of the electrifying U.S. Army Jazz Ambassadors (among the show’s guest artists) to introduce themselves, he insisted they call him “sir.” When Garfield High School clarinetist Carl Majeau — winner of the Ella Fitzgerald Outstanding Soloist Award — tried to make a shy exit after a crisp solo on “Ain’t Misbehavin,’ ” Hamlisch dragged him back and showed him how to bow like a major artist.

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Hamlisch’s buoyancy furthered the excitement of hearing the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and the 19-member Ambassadors make big-band music, ranging from the elegant to the ecstatic. Opening with an Irving Berlin medley, Hamlisch established the night’s sound: an irresistible collision of grace and sass, humming strings pushing against jumpy brass, and impassioned drumming made sharp and clear in the superb acoustics of Benaroya Hall.

Hamlisch’s luxurious arrangements on Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” and “Cheek to Cheek” were full of sweet touches and velvety textures. But the performances hopped, too, creating, altogether, an urbane sexiness that made me sorry I’m not Fred Astaire.

Hamlisch next ushered in a tribute to Louis Armstrong that featured the Ambassadors’ Sgt. Paul Stephens on a trumpet solo, evoking the drawling, warm personality of Satchmo in sauntering-blues mode.

A big part of the show reflected Hamlisch’s strong interest in instilling love for jazz and other orchestral music in kids. He hosted not only Majeau but the remarkable quartet Four to the Floor, a Seattle high-school jazz supergroup including pianist Julian Garvue (Garfield), drummer Thomas Campbell (Nathan Hale), saxophone player Xavier Del Castillo (Roosevelt) and bassist Nick Bissiri (Ingraham).

Canadian jazz prodigy Nikki Yanofsky, 14, wowed the house with impressive pipes and the mature phrasing of a much older adult. Her take on “God Bless the Child” and “The Way You Look Tonight” were refreshingly devoid of contemporary diva mannerisms. If the willowy Yanofsky isn’t exactly channeling Ella Fitzgerald, she is clearly influenced by the jazz icon — and can scat-sing like a champion.

After a satisfying salute to Duke Ellington, Hamlisch unleashed Louis Prima’s wild and epic big-band classic “Sing, Sing, Sing,” a nod to the tune’s lengthy workout 70 years ago at Benny Goodman’s legendary, 1938 Carnegie Hall concert. The Orchestra and Ambassadors captured “Sing, Sing, Sing’s” barely contained delirium, alternating crashing waves of rhythm with small solos to sustain a delicious tension.

“I’ll tell ya,” Hamlisch said. “I like that.”

Tom Keogh:

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