Pianist de Mare illuminates Sondheim with “Liaisons”

Fri Nov 19, 2021 at 2:25 pm
By George Grella
Anthony de Mare played instrumental variations on songs by Stephen Sondheim on Thursday night at Merkin Hall. Photo: Paolo Soriani

Pianist Anthony de Mare describes his ongoing survey of composer Stephen Sondheim as “imagining how his melodies would sound transformed into serious piano works.”

He may be underselling music that is already serious in craft and effect, as heard on the pianist’s 2015 ECM album, Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano, and in person on Thursday night at Merkin Hall. Only the most recalcitrant snob clings to a hierarchy in which Sondheim, one of the most important figures in American musical theater, is somehow less serious than what might be considered classical music. Those arguments were settled by Handel, and buried by Gershwin and Bernstein. With de Mare’s insightful concept and his expressive, winning playing and presentation, the only thing to consider about this collection of jewels was their cut and luster.

The program on Thursday paired five premieres with five pieces from the album. The most apparent difference from the original music is that these solo-piano arrangements — by Kenji Bunch, Timo Andres, Eve Beglarian, Meredith Monk and others — have no singing or lyrics. The most imaginative take a fragment of the original, or follow its shape, and build a response out of that. 

Two pieces on Thursday stood out as extreme deconstructions that, with de Mare’s thoughtful playing, built rich emotional experiences out of a minimal amount of material: the Andres premiere of “Nice is Different Than Good,” based on “I Know Things Now” from Into the Woods; and Derek Bermel’s pithy, impressionistic x-ray of “Sorry/Grateful” from Company

Sondheim’s melodies and harmonies move in unexpected directions but, with elegance and subtle wisdom, deliver the deep satisfactions that music theater songs have trained us to expect. One of the most impressive things about the music was how composers Max Richter, Jon Batiste and Ted Hearne — all premiered on Thursday — found evocative material that stepped away from the specific meaning of lyrics but maintained a deep emotional connection to the songs.

Those three had perhaps the most far-reaching takes. Batiste combined fragments of “The Gun Song” and “The Balled of Booth”, and added audio recordings of speeches from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and Donald Trump into a hauntingly ambiguous ballad, one de Mare kept balanced between feelings of loss and hope. Hearne’s “Another National Anthem” had a gentle surface but a seething, controlled sense of anger underneath. Richter transformed “Anyone Can Whistle” into a lyrical, deep meditation that would surprise anyone who only knew the composer’s soundtrack music or his “Sleep” project.

Beglarian’s “Perpetual Happiness,” out of “Happiness” from Passion, and Bunch’s “The Demon Barber” fantasy from Sweeney Todd conveyed the quality of the source through rhythmic vitality. 

Classical music in the 21st Century could use more of the rhythmic vitality that is inherent in stage music. De Mare kept Beglarian’s “Perpetuum” mobile dipping in and out of the song material, combining physicality with memory, and he dug into Bunch’s exciting riffs and bass lines. In a gentler way, Monk’s “Dialogue,” a premiere based on “Poems” from Pacific Overtures, had the inhaling-exhaling and sway of her own music, which is based on how the body produces sound.

In this company, Mason Bates’ “Very Put Together,” after “Putting it Together” from Sunday in the Park With George, was polished but so straightforward that it didn’t pique the imagination. De Mare closed with his own variations on “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” an extroverted flourish that sounded like the pianist and Sondheim working hand in hand.

Originally planned for a March 2020 celebration of Sondheim’s 90th birthday, Thursday’s performance was also a first installment: A spring concert will round out the survey as part of Merkin Hall’s “Piano Dialogues” series this season.

Anthony de Mare continues his “Liaisons” project 7:30 p.m. March 26 at Merkin Hall.  kaufmanmusiccenter.org

Leave a Comment


 Subscribe via RSS