Anthony de Mare: ‘Liaisons’ Project Illuminates Sondheim’s Genius as a Composer [Interview]

by Viola da Voce on August 21, 2013

in Pushing Musical Boundaries

Liaisons-15910_byRahav2To many people, jazz and classical music might seem worlds away from the songs of musical theater composer Stephen Sondheim. But that’s not the case for pianist Anthony de Mare.

One of the world’s most versatile pianists and a champion of contemporary music, Mr. de Mare has embarked on the ambitious Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano project which puts a whole new spin on the composer’s work. Mr. de Mare and producer Rachel Colbert have commissioned 36 composers from a myriad of genres to create a solo piano piece based on a Sondheim song of their choice. The only criterion was that the work had to adhere to the original song’s basic melodic material and could last no longer than 10 minutes. Contributing composers include jazz musician Fred Hersch, classical composer Steve Reich, and pop/classical artist Nico Muhly.

The Liaison Project‘s New York City premiere in April of 2012 garnered a sold-out house and a rave review in the New York Times. Since then, Mr. de Mare has performed the works at venues including the Cliburn Series in Fort Worth, the Dow Centennial Series in Calgary, and the 2012 Gilmore Keyboard Festival. He’ll be performing here in the Chicago area on Sunday, August 25 at Ravinia Festival’s Bennett Gordon Hall. Reserved tickets cost $10 and are available at ravinia.org or by calling 847-266-5100.

Mr. de Mare generously took the time to speak with us about topics including the inspiration behind this project, the compositions which surprised him the most, and even his desert island Sondheim playlist. Please enjoy his interview below.

Viola da Voce: What was it about Stephen Sondheim’s music that inspired you to embark on this project?

Anthony de Mare: This is a project that I have wanted to create since I was in my twenties.  I have always loved the breadth of color, emotion, melodic invention and harmonic detail that encompasses Sondheim’s music, along with a deep admiration for his malleability in working with so many different styles of musical theater. My strongest desire from an early age was to have piano works created from these songs that illuminate his genius as a composer.

Contrapuntist: When deciding what composers to work with on the project, what were you looking for when narrowing it down to the 36 with whom you collaborated? 

AdM: When the project first launched, it was to be about 20-25 composers spanning the genres beyond contemporary classical to also include jazz, theater, film, opera, pop, avant-garde and others.  During the years spanning its development, I discovered that the project was basically dictating its own path. Thus, with some suggestions from Mr. Sondheim coupled with a strong desire on my part to keep it as diverse as possible, it grew to 36 composers.   Certain parameters were given to the composers including a specified range of length for the piece, along with retaining the melodic material and most of the original harmonies.  There was some flexibility given as to structure in the re-imagining process.

Contra: Considering the number of different composers that worked with you on this project, is there a composer/composition that surprised you the most? Why? 

AdM: What I’ve discovered along this journey (and what has been observed by numerous listeners and critics alike) is that each piece is the perfect “marriage” between Sondheim and each individual composer’s compositional style, which of course makes each piece quite unique from one another.  There are certain composers who actually surprised me with their setting, but most all of the works were more of a delightful discovery:  those by Steve Reich, Paul Moravec, Andy Akiho, Kenji Bunch, Mark Anthony Turnage, Michael Daugherty, Nico Muhly, Gabriel Kahane, David Rakowski, Eve Beglarian, among many, many others. We’ve been saying all along that we’ve been “batting 100%” with the results. Some took the direct transcription route and others re-imagined in very original ways that always sustained a deep respect for Mr. Sondheim’s original material.  

VV: What would be your desert island playlist of Sondheim songs?

AdM: Oh there are just too many to name here.  I am enamored of nearly his entire output.  If I had to name shows though, I would say the entire scores of Sunday in the Park with George, Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, Company, Follies, Pacific Overtures, Into the Woods, Passion and Assassins.

VV: Are there any Sondheim songs which were not involved in this project that you hope to include in the future?

AdM: I’m very pleased that many of my favorites and some surprise choices were selected during the course of the project.  But – yes, I am hoping that perhaps some of the future composers might choose “Company”, “Not A Day Goes By”, “Poems”, “I Remember”, “The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea”,  “Loving You”, “I Read”, “Liaisons”, “Anyone Can Whistle”, “The Gun Song”, “The Ballad of Booth”, “Talent” and “A Little House for Mama” … the list goes on.   

Contra: Since this is an unconventional way for most audiences to hear Sondheim, what do you hope listeners will take away about the project and Sondheim?

AdM: Well I hope after hearing the concerts, they will be inspired to continue the journey by exploring more works by many of the composers represented on the programs.  For those who are new to Mr. Sondheim’s work, I hope they will be intrigued to want to hear more from the shows as well as see fully-staged performances of them; and for those who are familiar, I would hope they will hear something new, or perhaps surprising and intriguing,that will deepen their perspectives on his work.

Contra: What was Stephen Sondheim’s reaction after he heard these compositions?

AdM: Steve has been quite humbled and touched by the many talented composers (spanning all of the genres represented in the project) that have been so inspired and moved to create such interesting and appealing settings of his songs.  As he said in the on-stage interview at the first LIAISONS premiere in NYC in April, 2012 – “I’m thrilled – thrilled – I’m so delighted, I can’t tell you! It’s both flattering and aesthetically fulfilling to hear composers take my music – and take it seriously.”

For more information about Anthony de Mare and the Liaisons project, please visit anthonydemare.com.

Photo credit: Rahav

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