Anthony De Mare Triumphs with Classical and Jazz Works Inspired by Sondheim [Review]

de_MareOn Sunday, August 25, Contrapuntist and I attended Anthony de Mare‘s Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano in Bennett Gordon Hall at Ravinia Festival. The program featured 14 of the 36 Sondheim song arrangements which de Mare has commissioned from classical, jazz, and musical theater composers.

In our interview with de Mare last week, he shared his hope that the concert would inspire Sondheim fans to explore the works of the contributing composers while enticing Sondheim newcomers to learn more about and perhaps even attend one of his musicals. Although Contrapuntist and I have seen a few Sondheim productions, we certainly can’t claim to be connoisseurs. But after seeing de Mare’s triumphant performance, we definitely want to gain a deeper knowledge of the musicals. Moreover, we were impressed by de Mare’s ability to master everything from the most pyrotechnical classical compositions to the suave style of the jazz works.

The first half of the performance consisted of arrangements by classical composers. Kenji Bunch’s “The Demon Barber” from Sweeney Todd embarked on a maniacal romp emphasizing the subtle “Dies Irae” chant in “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd”. Inspired by Company, Gabriel Kahane’s “Being Alive” pitted anxious, atonal cascades against lyrical jazz. Nico Muhly’s “Color and Light” from Sunday in the Park with George began with brilliant fireworks of sound in the piano’s highest register interspersed with pensive melodies. Steve Reich created a two-piano version of “Finishing the Hat”, also from Sunday in the Park, which melded Reich’s idiosyncratic repetitive rhythms with the perkiness of Sondheim melodies. De Mare accompanied himself with his own recording of the second piano part.

Paul Moravec’s “I Think about You”, inspired by “Losing My Mind” from Follies, served as the emotional cornerstone of the program’s first half. Moravec employed a recurring musical phrase from the song’s title as an idée fixe representing obsession and heartbreak. The phrase later exploded into a psychotic flurry of repetitive figures. The music eventually gave way to a contemplative melody, although the idée fixe continued to subtly repeat in the background.

After the emotional turmoil of the Moravec, Thomas Newman’s beautiful “Not While I’m Around” from Sweeney served as a refreshing palate cleanser. Mason Bates’s “Very Put Together”, inspired by “Putting It Together” from Sunday in the Park sparkled with cheerful verve.

The recital’s first half closed with Michael Daugherty’s “Everybody’s Got the Right” from Assassins. The opening melded fragments of “Hail to the Chief” with bits of the original song’s jaunty melody. The same melody was then transformed into a cutesy treatment which would have sounded at home in a music box. Towards the end of the work, de Mare played huge cluster chords by banging his forearms on the piano keys. Finally, in an appropriate move for a work about assassins, he whipped out a pistol and fired a blank shot into the air. As the audience gasped and giggled, de Mare smiled and gave an irreverent eyebrow wiggle

The second portion of the concert featured works by a musical theater composer, jazz musicians, and one opera composer. Jason Robert Brown’s “Birds of Victorian England”, inspired by “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” from Sweeney, used thick orchestration and complex rhythms to paint musical portraits of trilling birds. The thick orchestration was possible thanks to the three recorded piano parts with which de Mare accompanied himself.

Ethan Iverson infused a jazz scale accompaniment into “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music, adding a counterpoint of swagger and dissonance. Fred Hersch’s arrangement of “No One Is Alone” from Into the Woods was warm and uplifting, while David Shire’s “Love Is in the Air” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was charming and bubbly. David Rakowski, who loves the bossa nova, according to de Mare, integrated that Brazilian style of music into his arrangement of “The Ladies Who Lunch” from Company. De Mare finished out the night with opera composer Jake Heggie’s “I’m excited. No you’re not” derived from “A Weekend in the Country” from Night Music. The frenzied work concluded with sonorous chords reminiscent of a Rachmaninoff sonata.

Anthony de Mare will be presenting the Liaisons pieces in the spring of 2014 at locations including San Francisco, UC Davis, and Minneapolis. For more information, please visit

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