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Anthony de Mare reimagines Sondheim and converses with Lara Downes

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Last night pianist Anthony de Mare brought his Liaisons tour to the Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for the latest installment of The Artist Sessions, founded and hosted by pianist Lara Downes. The full title of de Mare’s project is Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano; and it has involved 36 composers from the domains of classical, jazz, film, theater, and indie pop to reconceive their favorite songs from the musicals of Stephen Sondheim as piano solos. Nine of those composers were represented last night, their work interleaved with de Mare’s thoughts about the entire project disclosed through conversation with Downes.

De Mare may not be quite the seasoned and polished showman that Sondheim has become, but he definitely knows how to arrange a good program with particular attention to an opening that seizes the attention and a conclusion that reverberates in memory. The opening selection was Kenji Bunch’s “The Demon Barber,” based on “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” His music was a vivid reminder of how the concert paraphrase for piano is still alive and well in the 21st century and deserves to be so. Indeed, through Bunch’s setting, the attentive listener could discern a direct line leading all the way back into the nineteenth century when Franz Liszt composed his transcription of Franz Schubert’s “Der Erlkönig” (D. 328). If Liszt had boosted the impact of Schubert’s song with adrenaline, Bunch raised the stakes by injecting Sondheim with steroids.

Indeed, one way to approach Liaisons would be to think of it as an invitation to 36 composers to do unto Sondheim what Liszt had done unto Schubert, except that Schubert worked strictly through music, leaving the words to his love of literature. From this point of view, Bunch chose to focus on the many technical advances that have raised the stakes of virtuosity since Liszt’s day. His focus was clear enough that one could have assumed that he packed all of those advances into this one paraphrase. This allowed him to reframe Sondheim’s ballad in a more panoramic setting, even subtly suggesting the “Dies irae” motif before it makes its “official introduction” in Sondheim’s choral bridge.

The evening’s conclusion was equally panoramic, Jake Heggie’s setting of “A Weekend in the County,” entitled “I’m Excited. No You’re Not.” This is the first-act finale from A Little Night Music; and it exemplifies one of the things Sondheim does best, assigning an interior monologue to each member of a large cast and having them all play out simultaneously. Heggie’s ability to take all those sharply contrasting activities assaulting the theater audience from all directions and distill them down to two hands on a single keyboard was nothing short of inspired, equaled only by de Mare’s technical skill in executing it all.

This selection reinforced an interesting point that emerged over the course of the entire recital. “I’m Excited. No You’re Not” was strikingly different from any of my previous encounters with Heggie’s extensive work in art song and opera, as if the challenge of transcription allowed him to bring a new toolbox to his task. I would say the same of the work of both Nico Muhly and Mason Bates, both of whom set songs from Sunday in the Park with George ( “Color and Light” for Muhly and “Very Put Together,” based on “Putting it Together” for Bates). It is worth considering these achievements in the context of Sondheim’s own musical studies, which were with Milton Babbitt. Through his work with Sondheim, Babbitt could finally find an outlet for his own frustrations as a show composer, rather than assuming the role of Acolyte-in-Chief of the Second Viennese School, as he did for his other students. I like to think that his work with Sondheim in analyzing famous show tunes was a liberating experience for Babbitt, and composing paraphrases of Sondheim’s tunes may well have been just as liberating for Heggie, Muhly, and Bates. It certainly liberated Bates from his comfort zone in working with electronica; and, on the basis of last night’s results, I would be most interested in listening to him liberate himself more often.

Finally, a few words are in order about Downes and her own project. She is very comfortable in her role as host. She is a knowledgeable conversationalist; but she always seems to recognize that the knowledge that matters, so to speak, is that of her guest, rather than her own. She thus provided just the right framework within which de Mare could talk about Liaisons in terms of both the general project and the specific contributions he performed.

In that respect it is important to note that the next Artist Sessions gig will continue this theme of reimagining. The title of the program will be Reflections on Giants. Downes’ guest will be pianist Jed Distler, who has been studiously rethinking the music of Thelonious Monk. Downes herself will also perform work from her own current project in which she has been reimaging the songs of Billie Holiday as piano solos.

This program will take place on Tuesday, May 20, beginning at 8 p.m. For this recital Downes will return The Artist Sessions to the Center for New Music (C4NM) at 55 Taylor Street, just north of the intersection with Market Street. General admission will be $20 with a $10 rate for students and C4NM members. Tickets may be purchased in advance through a Brown Paper Tickets event page.

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