by Nick Stubblefield
Michael Katzif for WNYC.org
When I first saw Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd," I was immediately drawn to his eerie, imaginative use of melody and unconventional harmony. Since then, I've become one of many Stephen Sondheim fans.
Then, there's pianist Anthony de Mare. A champion of contemporary music, de Mare invited 36 composers - from a variety of genres ranging from jazz, to minimalism, to avant-garde - to re-arrange their favorite Sondheim piece for piano. The project, Liasons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano, wrapped up a three-part series at Symphony Space last week, playing to a packed house. de Mare posits that Sondheim's musical influence extends far beyond the theater, and after hearing his works re-arranged by artists ranging from jazz-trumpeter Wynton Marsalis to minimalist-icon Steve Reich, I am convinced that he's right.
The night started with Mary Ellen Childs' "Now," based on material from Sondheim's "Now/Later/Soon" from A Little Night Music. The piece twinkled and shimmered, showcasing the high piano registers for the first significant portion of the work, then building to rich and resonant octaves in the bass.
Wynton Marsalis' arrangement of "That Old Piano Roll," from Follies, charmed with a light, bouncing stride left-hand reminiscent of Scott Joplin, with a dash of Thelonious Monk stylings in the right hand. The off-kilter rhythmic and melodic juxtapositions piqued intellectual interest, but never at the expense of the piece's buoyancy. This was the work of a true jazzer; de Mare had plenty of fun demonstrating his range and aptitude for syncopation on this one.
Steve Reich, now 79, remains the preeminent proponent of minimalist music. His "Finishing the Hat - Two Pianos" from Sunday in the Park with George, was right in line with the repetitive, hypnotic structures found in many of his other works, and was highly effective when married to Sondheim's melody. The density of two pianos playing with such delicate rhythmic precision was a sonic thrill. (De Mare was joined by pianist Blair McMillen.)
Composer Andy Akiho's "Into the Woods" was wildly popular with the audience. It opened the program's second half, and utilized a prepared piano, in which the piano strings were modified to create unique timbres. Poster tacks and credit cards created rattling, surprisingly funky effects; according to the program notes, each specific modification was associated with a character from the original song. Easily one of my favorite Sondheim tunes, "Into the Woods" also happened to be one of the most groovy and fun re-arrangements on the program.
Throughout, de Mare played with confidence and no-holds-barred power, and with the expertise to exercise the necessary restraint on lighter passages. "New music" often struggles to connect with everyday audiences, so choosing to connect a beloved Broadway composer with leading new artists was a winning idea beautifully realized.