Pianist Anthony de Mare invited 36 composers from a wide variety of backgrounds – contemporary classical music, jazz, pop, film music, musical theatre, and more – to ‘re-imagine’ a song of their choice by Stephen Sondheim as a solo piano piece. Recording sessions for this 3-CD set spanned a four-year period, from November 2010 to November 2014. The result is a remarkable compendium of new music as well as a testament to the depth of the source material.
Sondheim is more than America’s preeminent composer of musical theatre, and his influence has resonated far beyond Broadway. “I created this project,” says Anthony De Mare, “because I wanted to show Sondheim’s influence on composers of many different genres and I also wanted to enhance and add to the piano repertoire with a whole new body of work. This project breaks open the boundaries between musical theatre and concert music.” As liner note author, and Sondheim authority Mark Eden Horowitz points out, Liaisons is “an exploration of how music communicates, not just to an audience, but among composers.”
“When Tony first told me about his idea for Liaisons I was flattered and intrigued,” says Stephen Sondheim. “Over the years I’ve heard songs of mine harmonized differently, and I’ve also heard arrangers change one note and completely kill the harmony. But the pieces created for Liaisons are by serious composers, not arrangers. Some are new to me, and some are old friends, some I was familiar with musically but had never met them personally. Nearly all of them totally surprised me, taking approaches that would never have occurred to me - very few of these re-imaginings are built like a song. They’re much more free-floating, there’s much more of a fantasia about them… It’s been fascinating to hear what each composer has done.”
The Sondheim songs reimagined, rearranged and reinvented, taking the idea of theme and variations to another level, are drawn from the shows A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), Anyone Can Whistle (1964), Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Pacific Overtures (1976), Sweeney Todd (1979), Merrily We Roll Along (1981), Sunday In The Park With George (1984), Into The Woods (1987), Assassins (1991), and Passion (1994). It’s remarkable to hear the way in which the commissioned composers can explore Sondheim’s world while strongly retaining their own signatures. Steve Reich’s version of “Finishing The Hat” from Sunday in The Park is one good example amongst many. Sondheim’s melody resonates clearly but the pulsing rhythmic modulations make the piece thoroughly Reichian. Wynton Marsalis and Frederic Rzewski might represent very different points of the musical spectrum but both find inspiration in Sondheim’s Follies. Marsalis pays tribute to James P. Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton, Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington in a version of “That Old Piano Roll” that vibrates with jazz history, while Frederic Rzewski – who once called Sondheim “the Schoenberg of musical theatre” – interprets “I’m Still Here” as a pensive meditation. There are many discoveries to be made here.
As Mark Eden Horowitz points out, “one of the reasons Liaisons succeeds so brilliantly is because Sondhein’s own music is such a rich source for sounds, ideas and approaches. (…) A Sondheim show may take place in 19th century Japan, London, Paris or Italy, Sweden at the turn of the 20th century, 1970s New York, once upon a time in a fairy tale wood, or any number of other times and places....”
A major figure in the history of the musical, also through his collaborations with Oscar Hammerstein, Leonard Bernstein, Richard Rodgers and more, Sondheim has described himself as an “experimental writer”, and his tunes have subtly challenged conventions of form and style and structure. Serial and electronic music composer Milton Babbit was amongst Sondheim’s early teachers, not an obvious mentor for a show business career. Sondheim: “I am his maverick, his one student who went into the popular arts with all his serious artillery”. Sondheim incorporated Asian musical influences in his mid-70s score for Pacific Overtures, making thereby his own bridges to the emergent Minimalist school (Phil Kline picks up on this in “Paraphrase”, his arrangement of “Someone In A Tree”). Indeed Stephen Sondheim has created - as Mark Eden Horowitz has noted in his book Sondheim on Music - a discrete musical language and vocabulary for each of his musicals. Part of the pleasure of Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano lies in hearing the 36 composers engage with these languages in their own idiosyncratic ways. Anthony De Mare delivers a tour de force with his presentation of these diverse musical conversations with Sondheim.
Anthony De Mare, born in Rochester, New York, is a renowned champion of contemporary music. He pioneered the genre of the speaking-singing pianist nearly 25 years ago with the premiere of Frederic Rzewski’s De Profundis, and his versatility has inspired the creation of over 60 new works by composers including Meredith Monk, David del Tredici, Paul Moravec, Aaron Jay Kernis, Fred Hersch and Jerome Kitzke. With Liaisons he has added another 27 composers to the list of those he has commissioned, and another 36 compositions to the contemporary piano repertoire – plus his own arrangement “Sunday In The Park –Passages” which brings the Liaisons three-CD set to its conclusion.
He has performed Liaisons programs across the U.S., Canada and Cuba including major venues and festivals in New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago and Minneapolis among others. Upcoming performances include Virginia Tech, Blacksburg VA where a selection of the Re-Imaginings will be played on September 18. In New York, all 36 pieces will be played in three different venues: Birdland (September 24), The Sheen Center (October 22) and Symphony Space (November 19). The adaptability of the programme to both “jazz” and “classical” spaces speaks once again to the range of Stephen Sondheim’s musical imagination and to De Mare’s versatility as performer.
Liaisons, produced by Judith Sherman, was recorded at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York and Greenfield Recital Hall, Manhattan School of Music.