Marvin Hamlisch is used to the "a-ha" look from members of student orchestras when he conducts — that moment when they realize that he wrote some famous melody they know by heart.
During a career of more than 40 years, Hamlisch and his music have become intertwined with American culture thanks to scores for movies including The Sting and The Way We Were, and Broadway's A Chorus Line. He has collaborated with singers Barbra Streisand and Liza Minnelli and fellow writer Carole Bayer Sager on the way to being part of a small group of people to win the Emmy (he has four), Grammy (four), Oscar (three) and Tony (one). He also has three Golden Globes and a Pulitzer Prize.
Saturday night, he will be onstage in Lexington, conducting and as a piano soloist with the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra.
"It should be fun," Hamlisch says. "It's a student orchestra, and I always like to see where the new people are coming from. There are a lot of really good students out there."
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In the UK Symphony, Hamlisch will get an orchestra near the end of an extraordinarily demanding week. Since last Saturday, the orchestra has performed at the opening ceremony of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, playing for most of the three-hour program; has played two performances of Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème with the UK Opera Theatre, with two more performances Sunday; and has prepared for Hamlisch.
"I told them to get ready for the most intense period of their artistic lives," UK Symphony music director John Nardolillo said of the early fall semester, during which the orchestra has been preparing for these programs.
Even with full schedules, the orchestra was not going to pass up a chance to play with a legend like Hamlisch.
"He's one of the world's greatest artists, and I mean really great," Nardolillo says, adding that before he started filling up his mantel with awards, Hamlisch, 66, "auditioned for Juilliard when he was 6. He wouldn't play any classical music, but he got in because he could play any pop song in any key."
And now his pop songs are what musicians around the world play.
Hamlisch doesn't beat around the bush when asked about the music of his he likes to play: "the music from A Chorus Line, because it was the most exciting thing I've ever done."
The audience Saturday night will hear that music, pieces from The Way We Were, Scott Joplin rags that were part of The Sting's soundtrack, and some new music.
Really new music.
"There's one part of the program which is a lot of fun," Hamlisch says. "It's a part of the program where I make up songs on the spot. I ask people to come up with brand-new titles for songs, and then I make up the song."
Hamlisch has hardly stopped his serious songwriting. He says he has several projects going, primarily potential Broadway shows.
"They take forever," Hamlisch says. "You work on them and you never know if they're going to happen or not."
Surveying the landscape of Broadway, he sees the tide moving toward rock musicals and "way too many revivals.
"I don't know whether it's changing for the better, but it's changing. To me, today, shows are a bit too much about energy. It's all about killing yourself for two hours, and sometimes there's brilliance in quietude. It's very rare to get a quiet moment onstage these days."
Maybe Hamlisch will find a few Saturday.