BWW Interviews: Anthony de Mare on LIASONS Sondheim Project, Coming to Mondavi
Pianist Anthony de Mare brings his audience-favorite concert LIAISONS: Re-Imagining Sondheim at the Piano to the Mondavi Arts Center for two shows March 29 - 30. Based on the music of the legendary composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim, Liasons is an intrepid program of new, solo piano works by some of the world's foremost contemporary composers - this marks the first time that Sondheim songs have ever been re-imagined for solo piano.
Harmony: This is an amazing project with a long history leading up to your tour. Can you tell me about that?
Anthony: I have loved Sondheim since I was very young. I was trained not only as a pianist but also in the theater and dance, so his shows have been a big part of my creative thinking. I consider him one of the great American composers and the mission of this project is to show his genius and brilliance musically as a composer since he's always been so celebrated as a composer-lyricist. Around 2006, the idea came to me to cast the net wide to a variety of composers crossing multiple genres - contemporary classical - jazz- theater- film- pop- opera- avant-garde and have different "takes" or interpretations on the songs for piano, thus the "re-imagining" concept. So I spoke to some composer friends who greatly supported this, and met a wonderful producer, Rachel Colbert, who was a fundraiser for the Flea Theater here in NYC (which I had done some work with previously) and she was intrigued and very interested in helping out and has become one of the backbones of the project. During the years spanning its development, we discovered 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.
Harmony: How did the name "Liaisons" come about? It's a reference to Sondheim's "A Little Night Music," correct?
Anthony: There is definitely a clear reference to the song from "A Little Night Music", but with a twist of sorts. In considering different titles for the project early on, it was my partner Tom (who works in audio-publishing) who suggested simply calling it "LIAISONS" - a multi-faceted title tapping many perspectives. One depicts the process (and mission) of the project-- whereby each composer acts as "liaison" between the original song (Sondheim's musical intentions and in some cases, the intentions of the lyrics and action) and the new version being re-imagined for piano solo. The result is me acting as "liaison" between the composer's final version and the musical communication (performance) of the piece with the audience. There was some back 'n forth discussion as well over time with Sondheim regarding many of the pieces being created, which also seemed to add to the collaborative "liaisons" perspective.
Harmony: Sondheim, too, has quite a history that has made him famous. What is it about Sondheim that everyone loves?
Anthony: Sondheim is a composer for the ages. Each of his shows (as diverse as the canon is) exemplifies an enormous amount of wisdom and taps into many aspects of our lives, and those feelings that we are often afraid to face head on. I've often discovered that the richness and emotional impact of his music (and lyrics) is so human, illustrating the many ways we choose to deal with life's challenges. His melodic and harmonic ingenuity also convey this on a very deep (unconscious) emotional level.
Harmony: How does Sondheim's music lend itself to piano?
Anthony: Many of the composers on the LIAISONS roster have admitted how influential Sondheim is/was to them in their careers and work. They, as well as myself, feel that the sophisticated lyric and dramatic musical components of his work lend themselves fluidly to virtuosity and incorporating a real range of sonority and color on the piano.
Harmony: There's quite a list of well known composers who contributed to this project. How does a composer go about creating unique variations without straying too far from the material?
Anthony: Certain parameters were given to the composers from the beginning, including a specified range of length for the piece, along with a request to retain the melodic material and most of the original harmonies. There was some flexibility given as to structure in the re-imagining process. What I've discovered along this journey (and what has been observed by numerous listeners and critics alike) is that each piece seems to be the perfect "marriage" between Sondheim and each individual composer's compositional style, which of course makes each piece quite unique from one another.
Harmony: What are some of your own personal favorites of Sondheim's music and the Liaisons project?
Anthony: I'm very pleased that many of my favorite songs and some surprise choices were selected during the course of the project by the composers. Many composers clearly chose their very favorite song or one very meaningful to them, and their comments during the process of re-imagining were heartfelt indeed. For myself, there really are too many to name here. I am enamored of nearly his entire output. If I had to name specific shows though, I would definitely include Sunday in the Park with George, Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, Company, Follies, Pacific Overtures, Into the Woods, Passion and Assassins.
Harmony: What can audiences look forward to at your concerts? You never do the same program twice, it seems. That must make for a very unique, intimate experience.
Anthony: Each program is usually tailored to the individual venue and the kind of audience that is being attracted. With 36 works on the roster, programs can be constructed in many varied lengths and formats-- some with projections as well as a film interview clip with Sondheim from the LIAISONS premiere in NYC. Some works include additional audio tracks, and others the use of the inside of the piano, along with other surprises.
In the past, many audience members have said they had no idea what to expect. Some were very familiar already with Sondheim's work and others not so. So for some it was hearing it in a completely different context and for others hearing it for the first time. Those not so familiar have commented that they were surprised to recognize melodies that they had heard before and liked, now understanding where they originated from. Those familiar with his work most of the time are delighted at how creative the settings are ... and again ... they hear the "marriage" of the composer's individual style with Sondheim. For some though ... it is a challenge, which is to be expected. One critic who was very familiar with Sondheim's work said that he was surprised to hear how well they worked without the lyrics and how recognizable and colorful the settings were.