“This project was a huge endeavor,” pianist Anthony de Mare tells me of Liaisons, his new collection of re-imagined compositions by legendary lyricist/ composer Stephen Sondheim (West Side Story, Company, Into the Woods, etc). “And while ECM Records head Manfred Eicher is known for his mastery in sequencing albums, he actually asked me and my producer, Judith Sherman, to sequence it. He said, ‘You do it, because you know the material so well.’ He was right, because we had worked on it for four years!”
On the three CDs that comprise Liaisons, three-dozen composers from across the musical stratosphere join forces to celebrate and craft their own interpretations of classic Sondheim works. From film composer Thomas Newman and pop/rock/Broadway wunderkind Duncan Sheik, to jazz icons like Fred Hersch and Wynton Marsalis, each of the project’s participants found his or her own unique story to tell through the intricacies of Sondheim’s music.
On a rare break between live performances, de Mare spoke to Keyboard about the monumental task of re-working some of the most acclaimed compositions of our time.
Can you tell our readers a little bit about your background and how it prepared you for a project like Liaisons?
I grew-up in Rochester, New York, and received my undergraduate degree from the Manhattan School of Music. Later in the early 1980s, I did my graduate work at the University of Buffalo with Yvar Mikhashoff, a teacher who specialized in contemporary music and who was very active in the new-music world. At that time, the university also had a center for contemporary music where they invited performers and composers from all different genres to hold residencies. So it was a very fruitful time.
Contemporary music isn’t something that most young people get intrigued by. How were you exposed to it?
Pianist Anthony de Mare (left) had the approval of composer Stephen Sondheim (right) to create the tribute album Liaisons. I started studying piano when I was seven years old, dance when I was eight, and children’s theater when I was around nine. So the three of them were all intertwined in my life for the next 10 to 15 years. And so while studying music was a big part of my life, I also had a very strong interest in musical theater. I can trace that back to being a record collector as a kid, and having extremely eclectic taste in terms of the music that I listened to. That led me to the training I did as not only a pianist, but as a dancer and actor in the theater world, which led me to the work I do now.
Back then my piano teacher noticed I had an affinity for contemporary music and composers like Gershwin, Prokofiev, Bartok, Khachaturian, etc. And when I entered Manhattan School of Music as an undergraduate student, my piano teacher there also sensed that same love for this repertoire. So even though at that time the school was still extremely conservative musically, I was one of the first students there to work on pieces by Messiaen, Berio, and other contemporary composers. Later at the University of Buffalo, Yvar Mikhashoff took me under his wing and groomed me to do radio shows, competitions in Europe, and more. My repertoire continued to grow and become more adventurous, with cutting-edge, theatrical elements that included pieces where I sang or spoke while I played. I started working with Meredith Monk’s performing arts company, along with other composers who tapped into the more theatrical elements I was exploring. This led to more and more composers writing pieces for me, and me being called a pioneer of the genre known as “the speaking-singing pianist.” I also started teaching piano at the Manhattan School of Music and later at New York University. But throughout all of these different endeavors, my love for musical theater endured.
How did the idea to create a project around Stephen Sondheim’s music come about?
It starts with the memories I have of my record collection as a kid. My parents had some of the more famous recordings of that genre: Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, etc. They also had recordings of film scores and Broadway shows like West Side Story, Bye Bye Birdie, My Fair Lady, along with recordings by Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, and Glenn Miller. I even listened to electronic test pattern records! So I think this lifelong fascination with all kinds of sound set the stage for the work I was to do later on.
In the late 1980s, I was asked to create a piano transcription of one of Sondheim’s songs for a summer music festival. It got me thinking about doing more work like that, but at that time, I was doubting my composition and arranging skills. So the idea stayed in my brain throughout the 1990s, even as I was busy teaching and performing. In 2005, my friend, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Paul Moravec urged me to put a project of Sondheim’s music together using different composers, so we started brainstorming on the idea. What we ended up learning is that Sondheim has had a huge influence and impact on composers from all different musical genres, from classical, to jazz, film, opera, indie, and beyond. I was introduced to a wonderful fundraiser and producer from the theater world named Rachel Colbert. She was intrigued by the idea of combining concert music with the theater. The two of us ended up connecting with one of Stephen Sondheim’s lawyers, who passed a letter from me on to Stephen which detailed my idea for the project. Two weeks later, Stephen called me directly, telling me he was completely intrigued and humbled by the idea of some of these A-list composers working with his melodies and harmonies. That started the project rolling, with individual donors coming onboard, as well as partner presenters around the country who commissioned sometimes up to four composers for the project. So what began initially as 20 to 25 pieces grew to 36.
What kind of instructions did you give to the composers interpreting Sondheim’s music for Liaisons?
There were different parameters given to each of them. For instance, I asked them to keep the length of each piece to between three and eight minutes. I also asked them to retain the melodic material [from the original composition] as well as the harmonies, while of course playing with the structure of the piece. I also asked the composers not to deconstruct the pieces they were given, although two of them actually did, and the results ended up being quite eloquent. But most of the composers did adhere to the parameters I gave them.
Along the way, many of the composers on Liaisons would call or write me, conveying how much difficulty they were having with the project. And the reason was simple: They felt that Sondheim’s songs were already perfect the way they are! In the end, the consensus was that the struggle was worth it. Some of the composers even felt like the pieces wrote themselves.
How did the results vary from composer to composer?
Some pieces were direct transcriptions. For instance, Fred Hersch decided to really honor the original material of “No One Is Alone,” from Into the Woods. But it’s written with his unique style of playing, which is great. Ethan Iverson really changed the story of “Send in the Clowns,” injecting humor into it by setting it in a club and patterning after [saxophonist] Ornette Coleman’s method of playing riffs at the front of a piece before segueing into the song. So each composer had his or her own take on the music.
What do you think it is about Sondheim’s music affects and inspires musicians from all across the musical divide?
I think it has to do with many things, and each composer will have their own individual take on that question. As someone who was trained classically, but also having been exposed to a lot of show, film, and jazz music, for me it often starts with Sondheim’s harmony. Something about the harmonic schemes in each of his songs always touched me. And of course, it’s about his lyrics too. One of my missions with this project was to show how Sondheim really is one of the top American composers of the twentieth century. But there’s something about the way he handles both music and lyrics that touches the listener and makes them learn more about themself. And his music seems to enhance his lyrics and narrative to an even greater degree. Each of his shows is so different from the next one—whether it’s the geographical setting or the time period, or the nature of the setting. He forces us to get in touch with the things that we often don’t want to look at, and he makes us think as well as feel. Sondheim has given us a canon of work that truly reaches out and touches people.