For the past two holiday seasons, fans of Broadway musicals have had special treats under the Christmas tree – the collected lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, issued in matching volumes during the past two autumns. “Finishing A Hat” (volume 1) and “Look, I Made A Hat” (volume 2) are coffee table-size books that include not just the lyrics for legendary shows like “West Side Story,” “A Little Night Music” and “Sweeney Todd,” but also extensive commentary and reminisces by Sondheim. (The books’ titles reference a song from “Sunday in the Park With George.”)
In one passage, Sondheim acknowledges that the collections focus on only half of his creativity, since he writes both words and music. While delving into the minutia of what makes a good song text, he purposely avoided technical discussions of melody, rhythm and harmony. “Music is a foreign language that everyone knows but only musicians can speak,” he wrote.
As a counter balance to the anthologies of Sondheim the lyricist, there’s now a new project from pianist Anthony de Mare that honors Sondheim the composer. “Liaisons: Celebrating Sondheim from the Piano,” which comes to the Hudson Opera House on Saturday (1/21), is an on-going concert and commissioning project wherein more than 30 composers create new works based on Sondheim’s songs.
Thirteen pieces will be part of Saturday’s program, with the contributing composers from many avenues of American music, including jazz (Fred Hersch), classical (William Bolcom), minimalism (Steve Reich) and opera (Jake Heggie).
“Each piece has become a wonderful marriage of the Sondheim material and the composer’s own individual style,” comments de Mare. “Several of the composers have commented that this has been a very difficult assignment for them simply because they feel the songs are already so perfect. They’ve nonetheless come through with a finished product that they seem quite proud of.”
The idea for “Liaisons” came to de Mare more than 20 years ago when he tried his own hand at arranging some Sondheim material. But as a veteran of the contemporary music world, de Mare knows a wide circle of composers. As Sondheim’s 80th birthday in March 2010 drew near, he had no trouble lining up other composers to join in the project. All told, the processes of approaching composers, raising funds for the commissions, and scheduling concerts at venues large and small have been in the works for several years.
To get Sondheim on board with the project, de Mare first reached out with a letter. He responded quickly, stating, “I’m flattered and delighted by your interest in my songs, and your project sounds intriguing indeed.”
More composers, young and old, continue to sign on as participants, which shouldn’t pose a problem as there’s an almost endless supply of Sondheim material at the ready. (The shows with his words and music number about 13 depending on how you count them.)
While the growing body of pieces is too much for one concert, the diversity of material allows de Mare to create new recital programs for each concert outing. After the Hudson concert he heads to performances in Fort Worth and San Francisco followed by the New York City debut at Symphony Space in April. Sondheim and most of the other composers are all scheduled to be on hand then. Planned for next year is a second concert in Manhattan and a recording of the entire collection.
Though most of the composers in “Liaisons” come from the classical realm, there’s the potential for a wide audience due to the cult of Sondheim fans. (Did you know there’s an entire magazine devoted to Sondheim? “The Sondheim Review” has been published quarterly since 1995.)
As for Sondheim’s own response to the project, de Mare says that over the past year he’s attended a number of private concerts where the new works have been tried out. “He’s heard about 15 of the works thus far,” says de Mare, “and still comments on how humbled he is by the composers’ interest in and how inspired they are by his melodies and works.”
Previously on My Big Gay Ears: