Saturday April 2
University of Maryland
Anthony de Mare kicked off his American tour of LIAISONS: Re-imagining Sondheim from the Piano at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center with fine performances of 14 new works. LIAISONS will eventually include short piano pieces written by 36 stylistically diverse contemporary composers, each work based on a Steven Sondheim song of the composer’s choice.
De Mare explains in his program note that Sondheim’s music has been a part of his own life as far back as he can remember, and that he had imagined something like this project for a long time. His comfort with and knowledge of Sondheim’s output is clear, not only in his well-crafted performances of the new works, but also in his refreshingly informal remarks from the stage between pieces. (By the way, can I just say here how much I appreciate the continuing trend of helping concert music audiences feel at home and relaxed with an informal attitude toward what performers wear and how free they feel to actually talk to an audience during a performance? Thanks to Anthony de Mare for keeping this trend going!)
The new pieces run the gamut from fairly straightforward presentations of the original tune (think Gershwin’s own arrangements of his songs) to clever de-constructions to full-fledged virtuostic paraphrases (think Liszt).
Two standouts for me were the pieces by Bernadette Speach (“In and Out of Love” based on “Liaisons” & “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music) and Fred Hersch (“No One Is Alone” from Into the Woods). Proving the old adage that “simple is best,” these two inherently pianistic works treat the original material in a tender, thoughtful manner that honors their integrity while showing us something new about them.
I was also glad that in “The Demon Barber,” composer Kenji Bunch tackled The Ballad of Sweeney Todd, long one of my favorites of all Sondheim works. Bunch says he was trying to pay “homage to the seething, menacing” original: mission accomplished.
William Bolcom’s “A Little Night Fughetta” nicely combines the title song from Anyone Can Whistle as a fugal subject with “Send in the Clowns” as its countersubject. Steve Reich’s take on “Finishing the Hat” from Sunday in the Park with George provided a welcome change from the solo-piano texture with a two-piano work, rendered Saturday night by live Anthony de Mare playing along with pre-recorded Anthony de Mare.
I also can’t help but mention the very entertaining “You Could Drive A Person Crazy” (from Company) by Eric Rockwell. This clever piece of theater demonstrates several things that might drive a pianist crazy, including 14-flat key signatures, chords requiring more fingers than most humans possess, and the interference of a clueless, possibly malevolent, page turner (wonderfully overplayed by Amir Khosrowpour).The piece brings the best of Victor Borge into the 21st century.
What I found so interesting about all the pieces is that, despite the compositional processes applied to the original Sondheim material (including some pretty strenuous melodic fragmentation, rhythmic re-thinking, and re-harmonization), there’s no mistaking that the original material is Sondheim. (And this is all without the lyrics, which I’ve always thought were as original and inventive as Sondheim’s notes.) How is this possible?
I don’t know. If you can answer that question, you’ve just explained the genius of one of America’s most gifted composer/lyricists of all time.
Scott Pender is a Washington DC-based composer.
Previously on MyBigGayEars: