Stephen Sondheim's music has been an essential part of Anthony de Mare's life as far back as he can remember. "I always felt there was something very unique, almost kind of transcendent, about his shows," the American pianist says today. "There was always this wonderful message in each one."
His affinity for Sondheim was nurtured by his involvement in the theater program at the Jesuit boys school he attended in his native Rochester, N.Y. De Mare began to imagine how Sondheim tunes would sound when transcribed for the piano.
In 1985 he created his own solo keyboard mash-up of songs from the musical "Sunday in the Park with George." His goal was to write some 8 to 10 more Sondheim transcriptions, but he soon realized he had neither the compositional ability nor the time to take on so large a project singlehandedly, and so he relegated the plan to the back burner.
After decades of collaborating with and championing the music of living composers, De Mare decided in 2006 to revive the Sondheim project, albeit on a much grander scale – commissioning composers from different musical worlds to create their own piano arrangements of Sondheim songs, which he would then premiere in a series of recitals. With Sondheim's enthusiastic backing and the encouragement of colleagues, he was off and running.
The result is "Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim for the Piano," a mightily ambitious project De Mare has been presenting in segments at venues around the country over the last couple of years. When the project is completed in early 2014, it will comprise 36 transcriptions by composers from seven countries and three continents, representing classical, jazz, pop, musical theater, film music and other genres.
Over the next few days and months local audiences will get two opportunities to dip into this trove of Sondheimiana along with the pianist who brought it into the world. De Mare will perform 15 transcriptions in a recital for the Music in the Loft series Sunday afternoon in the Fine Arts Building in downtown Chicago. He will present a different series of pieces, this time in a multi-media format, at Ravinia on Aug. 25.
A partial list of the composers included on Sunday's program gives one an idea of the widely diverse styles incorporated within the "Liaisons" initiative: William Bolcom, Ricky Ian Gordon, Phil Kline, David Rakowski, Frederic Rzewski, Nils Vigeland, Derek Bermel, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Kenji Bunch are prominent, along with Chicago-based composers Mason Bates and Ricardo Lorenz.
The Sondheim project began with De Mare drawing up wish-lists of composers he wanted to approach and songs he felt would lend themselves to transcription. "I wanted composer-pianists but I also wanted composers who felt an affinity towards Sondheim's music – I didn't want them to do it just for the gig," says the pianist, 55, who serves as professor of piano at the Manhattan School of Music and New York University/Steinhardt.
Sondheim was both flattered and excited by the prospect of hearing his songs reworked and transfered to another medium, De Mare says. Broadway's grand old man came up with his own dream sheet of 8 to 10 composers, some of whom overlapped with De Mare's choices. The pianist told each composer he or she didn't have to stick to the suggested songs, stipulating only that they retain the melodic material and at least some of the original harmonic base.
"The one thing I did ask them not to do was to deconstruct their particular song," De Mare says. "Two composers went ahead and deconstructed them anyway, because that's the route they wanted to take. A lot of the composers said this was one of the most difficult things they've ever had to do, because the songs are already perfect the way they are."
There was an additional stumbling-block early in the process. Just about every composer De Mare approached pointed out that re-casting Sondheim songs as abstract piano pieces meant forgoing one of the most crucial and important elements in any Sondheim song – their brilliant lyrics. He countered by telling them that Sondheim "set those lyrics so that the music can stand on its own."
The pianist admits he was "pretty honest" with some composers about making changes in the pieces they submitted but that all were very amenable to doing so. "Sondheim himself made a few suggestions that I relayed to the composers and they completely agreed with."
Almost every piece he finds "very pianistic," the technical level ranging from "easy" to "damn difficult." Not surprisingly, the Sondheim shows more composers latched onto than any others were the "classical" musicals – "A Little Night Music," "Sweeney Todd" and "Sunday in the Park with George." Steve Reich, for example, chose "Finishing the Hat," from "Sunday in the Park," which he turned into a rhythmically charged piece for two pianos De Mare plans to include on his Ravinia program this summer.
Each composer received a commissioning fee of $2,500. "The fee was never an issue – everybody just wanted to do it because of their respect for Sondheim," De Mare says. "Reich and Bolcom in particular were very excited to be a part of this project. Both men have known Stephen for years and came up with nice tributes."
Both Sondheim and Rachel Colbert, DeMare's producer and fundraiser, were instrumental in lining up donors for the project. Additional funding is being raised for a planned integral recording of the 36 transcriptions, 21 of which the pianist has already recorded. He expects to take the remaining 15 pieces into the studio by the end of the year. Three separate labels have expressed interest in releasing the recording, although none has been signed so far. Plans are for the three-CD set to be issued in spring 2014 to coincide with De Mare's premiering the four remaining pieces (which have yet to be completed) at a concert in New York. He also hopes to have the scores published.
As De Mare sees it, each piece in the "Liaisons" anthology represents a unique marriage of the composer's individual style with Sondheim's genius as one of the great artisans of contemporary music theater.
Far from being merely songs without words, these transcriptions are, in the pianist's view, complete musical statements in themselves. "It's as if each composer is having a conversation with Sondheim – not just his material but his craft, wit, everything," he says.
"For people who aren't familiar with his work, I hope the upcoming recital programs will be a good introduction. Those who do know Sondheim's shows will be hearing the songs in a completely different context and thus may find something new in them – as I have done myself while I was learning them."
Anthony De Mare will play selections from "Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim" at 3 p.m. Sunday in Suite 801 of the Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan Ave.; $25, $10 for students; 312-919-5030, musicintheloft.org.
firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter @jvonrhein