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Santa Rosa Symphony marks a decade of pops concerts

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ODE TO FRIENDS Conductor Michael Berkowitz celebrates the work of Marvin Hamlisch and Babs.
  • ODE TO FRIENDS Conductor Michael Berkowitz celebrates the work of Marvin Hamlisch and Babs.

Drummer and conductor Michael Berkowitz has amassed a stunning array of credits in his career. From being one of the busiest studio and television drummers in 1970s Los Angeles, to his time performing and conducting on Broadway, Berkowitz has seen it all and worked with legendary stars and musicians.

This week, as the principle pops conductor for the Santa Rosa Symphony, Berkowitz presents a retrospective look at the work of Marvin Hamlisch, one of his closest friends. "The Way They Were: A Tribute to Marvin Hamlisch and Barbra Streisand" kicks off the symphony's 10th season of pops concerts, a series that highlights contemporary scores from film and theater. Speaking by phone, Berkowitz shares details of his relationship with the late conductor and composer.

"This is really a tribute to Marvin, and because he had such a great relationship with Barbra Streisand, I wanted to do more than just the music he wrote for Broadway and whatnot," says Berkowitz.

Hamlisch and Streisand first met on the set of Funny Girl, where Hamlisch was the rehearsal pianist and assistant vocal arranger. "I wanted to portray that. So we're doing a number of songs from Funny Girl, and also we're doing things that Marvin conducted for her, such as the overture to her 1994 concert tour."

Berkowitz's relationship with Hamlisch began in 1980, after moving to New York, where Hamlisch gave him his first break at conducting. "I had recently moved and he needed a drummer," recalls Berkowitz. "I was the drummer one week, and two weeks after that I became the conductor because the regular conductor wasn't available and [Hamlisch] said, 'Let's just use Mike.'"

For 10 years, Berkowitz was the musical director, conductor and drummer for Hamlisch, who continued to score with a string of hits for film and stage alike. Hamlisch is one of only a dozen people to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award, collectively known as an EGOT. The composer passed away in 2012, at the age of 68.

"He was incredibly brilliant," remembers Berkowitz. "And we were personal friends, which was great."

With this upcoming concert, vocalist Haven Burton will join Berkowitz and the Santa Rosa Symphony, fresh off a starring role in the Broadway production of the Cyndi Lauper musical Kinky Boots. There will be heartfelt tributes, joyful music and plenty of surprises in store for this upcoming performance. Before the show, Berkowitz will host a one-hour talk about the afternoon's concert and share stories from his career.

Symphony Pops: 'The Way They Were: A Tribute to Marvin Hamlisch and Barbra Streisand' is presented by the Santa Rosa Symphony on Sunday, Oct. 26, at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. 3pm. $37–$80. 707.546.3600.

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