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Anthony De Mare Liaisons: Re-imagining Sondheim from the Piano

By • Sep 22nd, 2012 • Category: Reviews
Liaisons: Re-imagining Sondheim from the Piano
The University of Maryland
1:45 with intermission
Reviewed September 21st, 2012

Stephen Sondheim, by any measure, occupies the highest place in the pantheon of contemporary American theater music composers and lyricists, our equivalent of what the Japanese would call a “living national treasure.” So closely integrated are his words and music, and so closely are both attuned to character and story in his many shows, that it could seem foolish to separate the elements to focus only on a single aspect of his work.

Sondheim himself successfully pulled off the feat, however, in his recent books of lyrics and commentary, “Finishing the Hat” and “Look, I Made a Hat.” Pianist Anthony De Mare has taken on the musical side of Sondheim’s output in what he calls The Liaisons Project. De Mare, with Sondheim’s enthusiastic endorsement, commissioned 36 composers to write what De Mare describes as “re-imaginings” of Sondheim songs for solo piano. An earlier version of the program was performed at the University of Maryland in the 2010-11 season, and the program had a successful début in New York in last April. De Mare performed 20 of the songs Friday at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

De Mare is a dynamic pianist, with technique and musicianship to burn. He is equally at home in quiet, lyrical passages and big, fast, technically demanding pieces. In a between-numbers comment, De Mare said that one of the composers had noted the tempo for his piece as “quicksilver,” an apt term for De Mare’s playing in many of the selections.

Like Sondheim’s songs themselves, the compositions on the program carried a variety of moods. Ricardo Lorenz added a Latin flavor to the humorous “The Worst [Empanadas] in London,” based on Mrs. Lovett’s opening number from Sweeney Todd. “Very Put Together” (Mason Bates) gave a light touch to a piece suggested by “Putting It Together” from Sunday in the Park with George.

Sondheim’s quieter moments were represented well by an almost meditative take on Company‘s “Sorry/Grateful” (Derek Bremel) and Sweeney‘s “Pretty Women” (Mark-Anthony Turnage), though the latter added some darker notes toward the end, appropriate in light of the pre-homicidal context of the song in the show. As a pure piano composition, one of the most effective pieces was “going…gone” (Tania Leon), largely because it avoided taking a literal approach to its roots in “Good Thing Going” from Merrily We Roll Along.

In three pieces, De Mare’s composers were able to capture the central feeling of an entire show in a brief piece of piano writing. Michael Daugherty’s “Everybody’s Got the Right” began with “Hail to the Chief” in the instrument’s lowest register, proceeded to a honky-tonk arrangement of “Everybody’s Got the Right to Be Happy,” and ended with several forearm slams on the keyboard, punctuated by a gunshot. It would be hard to find a better summary of Assassins. For communicating the spirit of artist Georges Seurat, no performance I have seen by an actor in the number has outdone Steve Reich’s dual-piano version of Sunday in the Park‘s “Finishing the Hat” (De Mare accompanied himself with a recording of the second piano part).

The program concluded with a rousing fantasia on “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” (especially as used in the Sweeney‘s second act finale) by Kenji Bunch, which besides being a bravura piece technically perfectly conveyed the tension and fear Sondheim put into perhaps his greatest show. In all these instances, the “re-imaginings” of the numbers by the composers served to emphasize the success of Sondheim’s musical writing – even in the absence of his brilliant lyrics – in telling the stories and illuminating the characters in his shows.

But wait, there’s more: Friday’s program did not include all the songs included in some previous performances (e.g., a lovely version of “No One is Alone” from Into the Woods, excerpted on De Mare’s website), and new additions to the Liaisons Project collection will be introduced in a New York recital next March. (One wonders whether an adaptation of “Liaisons” from A Little Night Music will be among them.) Hopefully, the Smith Center will bring next year’s program to the Washington area as well. For those who love Sondheim as well as those who are interested in hearing new work from a variety of contemporary composers, it will be a must-see occasion.

Disclaimer: The University of Maryland provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.

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