On Saturday, March 9 (7 pm), as part of Symphony Space’s The Music of Now Series, pianist Anthony de Mare returns to the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre for the second installment of Liaisons: Reimagining Sondheim from the Piano. Marrying his reputation as a champion of contemporary classical music with his deep respect for legendary musical theater composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim, de Mare is building a unique piano repertory by commissioning 36 leading contemporary composers from the classical, jazz, theater, and film worlds to write short solo piano pieces inspired by Sondheim’s music.
Anthony de Mare’s sold-out Symphony Space concert last April featured seventeen of the commissioned works, including pieces by Steve Reich, William Bolcom, Fred Hersch, and Marc-Anthony Turnage. On March 9, de Mare will premiere fifteen new compositions by Eve Beglarian, Jason Robert Brown, Mary Ellen Childs, Michael Daugherty, Peter Golub, Annie Gosfield, Phil Kline, Nico Muhly, John Musto, Thomas Newman, Eric Rockwell, Frederic Rzewski, Rodney Sharman, Bernadette Speach, and Nils Vigeland. The works draw on famous and lesser-known Sondheim songs from Sunday in the Park with George, Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, Follies, Company, and other shows.
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Anthony de Mare had a few minutes to speak about the beginnings of the project and the workings of the production.
“Liasons was started over 6 years ago. I actually wanted to start doing it since the 1980s, but I shelved it. I was going to do a few songs myself, and did one of them, but I started to become too busy with performing, so about 6 or 7 years ago in talking to a few composer friends of mine–Paul Moravec and Fred Rzewski, and a few others–they sort of encouraged me to go forward because I had the idea then to cast the net and have composers do this for me, and I would play them.
The mission is to show the strength and genius of Sondheim as a composer as opposed to composer and lyricist. The other thing was to extend it to multiple genres–composers in classical, theatre, film, avant-garde, etc. With that, the roster grew because I had people that I wanted to invite, and I also solicited Sondheim’s opinion about that, and a lot of our lists overlapped in terms of composers and then we discussed songs, and there was a lot of back and forth. Then there was the fundraising, which took a while, but that started to move forward, and so it grew–It went from 20 to 25 pieces, then grew to 30, and if we settled at 36, as Rachel Colbert, the producer says, “36 is a great round number to work with!”. Rzewski also seemed to like it because of ‘The People United’.
Sondheim/Moravec: I Think About You
But for multiple reasons, we had to cap it also for the recording (forthcoming CD), the upcoming publication of the scores, all of that. And then, the commissioners–there are about 6 or 7 of what we call “partner-presenters” that have commissioned works around the country. The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, The Gilmore Piano Festival, Music in The Park in Schubert Club in Minneapolis, and Music in the Loft in Chicago, and several others.
What’s great about the project is that each piece is like a marriage between Sondheim’s work (melodies, harmonies, structures) and each composer’s voice, which has made the pieces very unique. I had some criteria along the way–I asked them all to retain the melodic material, and to not really deconstruct, although a couple of them did, and to sustain some of the harmonic balance that he has, which many of them did. Curiously, 80% had come back at some point, whether in email, phone call, panic, saying this was one of the hardest things they’ve ever done, and it was a big challenge because the songs are already perfect the way they are. But because of going through that dark tunnel of challenge, most of them seem very, very pleased with what they finally did, and they were happy that they actually pursued and went through. And what they came up with with in all the cases is great. Now we have this plethora of pieces for the presenters.
Sondheim/Reich: Finishing The Hat
The past 2 years have been trying out the pieces in different formats, different sequencing, all of that. Last year, Symphony Space could only present 17 pieces, and that included panel discussions with the composers that were present, and also a live interview with Sondheim. This year, it’s another 15, a repeat of 3 previously presented ones that were very popular, including the Steve Reich piece as well as Jake Heggie’s and Mason Bates’.
What we’ve been doing is filming the composers asking questions about the process, about the relationship to Sondheim, etc, and we’ve edited that down to 3 short films that will be shown during the concert, and Sondheim will be present once again.
This year is a much more eclectic collection. Last year was a lot of the classical and a couple of jazz and theater ones–This year there’s more theater, some film, more jazz, but also some Downtown and New Music composers as well.”