A Little Sondheim: Anthony de Mare and Liaisons

I never did meet Tony de Mare last summer, when we were both performing at the Portland Piano International festival. I arrived at the festival venue 5 minutes after he had left the building on his way to the airport, having just finished up a masterclass following his concert the night before. The next evening, I played my festival concert, and at the reception one of the audience members complimented the definition in my arms, as displayed in a strapless gown. "And", he said "we couldn't help noticing that Mr. de Mare also has a very impressive physique. Tell me, are all classical pianists in such amazing shape?" 
My arms are, admittedly, fairly well cut, due both to my hours at the piano and to a slightly obsessive gym habit. But when I did meet Tony, a couple of months later at a New York concert, I had a chance to check out the competition, and I am pretty sure that if it came to it, he could arm wrestle me under the table without so much as flexing a bicep. (See biceps>>>>>>)

Trained as a dancer and actor as well as a pianist (and, I'm guessing, harboring a little gym habit of his own), Tony is known for the impressive physicality of his piano playing. He's also notorious for the tremendous breadth and flexibility of his musical interests. An intrepid and eclectic champion of new music, he has been collaborating with composers for over 20 years to create a huge and unique repertoire that showcases his singular range of talents. His projects consistently reflect his interest in achieving what Justin Davidson of Newsday has called the "slippery fusion" of music and theater. In De Profundis, a multimedia work written for him by Frederic Rzewski, Tony recites from Oscar Wilde's prison journal and sings in a falsetto croon, while performing the fiendishly virtuosic piano score in near-darkness. In Playing With Myself, a piece of "concert theater" he created with director Sal Trapani, he fuses piano performance, song, dance sequences and autobiographical dramatic sketches to tell the story of a young man whose exploration of his anguished longing culminates in a transforming romantic encounter at a gay nightclub. His latest CD, SPEAK - The Speaking-Singing Pianist, (Innova 2010) is uniquely recording devoted to the pianist/vocalist genre that he created over 20 years ago. 

"The pieces have enough in the way of music, story and pacing that time goes by quite quickly. And it is time spent to good use. In a way, this is the thinking person's Broadway, the hipster's alternative to opera, the musical equivalent of a very dynamic poetry reading, theater for those jaded with the usual claptrap. It's a trip that you will very much enjoy if you have an open mind."
- Grego Edwards, Gapplegate

Tony's latest project, Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano, may be the most ambitious in a long line of ambitious efforts: a landmark commissioning and concert project that focuses on the prolific output of one of his musical heroes, Stephen Sondheim. Tony has brought together 36 composers, both emerging and established, including Steve Reich, Fred Hersch, Eve Beglarian, Fred Rzewski, Tania Leon, Daniel Bernard Roumain, Mason Bates, and Gabriel Kahane, to create solo piano pieces based on Sondheim songs of their own choosing. The resulting "re-imaginings" bring Sondheim's work into the concert hall while spanning the classical contemporary, jazz, film, theater and pop worlds. For Tony, this an intensely personal project, a labor of love, and what he calls a "career realization", the perfect melding of his musical passions and personal history.

Previews in Portland, San Francisco, New York and DC have generated excitement and terrific reviews. The highly anticipated official New York premiere of Liaisons takes place at Symphony Space this Saturday, April 21. 

Tony and I caught up over Skype to talk about the exhilarating experience of reimagining giants, looking back, and looking forward all at once.
Lara Downes: You and I were introduced for the first time in the context of our current projects: 13 WAYS of Looking at the Goldberg and Liaisons, which are both projects that “reimagine” or respond to other works of music: in the case of 13 WAYS, the Goldberg Variations, and in the case of Liaisons, the songs of Sondheim. How has this year been for you, living in the world of "reimagination"?

Anthony de Mare: Well it has been a very busy one ... due to the fact that the project has been 5 years in the making and has so many components - composers, fund-raising, discussion with Sondheim, the composers, having a producer and being co-producer as well as artistic director. But so far it has been more than gratifying.  Although there are so MANY pieces to be learned.

LD: Right, you keep adding more! Maybe I should think about expanding 13 WAYS into 130 WAYS or something, with apologies to Wallace Stevens...

AdM: Yes, it was originally only going to be about 25 or so ... then 30 --- then after Sondheim heard several of them a year ago - he suggested other composers who quickly said yes and the producer decided that 36 was the best round number to work with ... especially for presenters ... so that they can present 1-2-or 3 concerts of approx. 60-70 minutes each. For instance the Gilmore Festival in May will have me do two 60 minute concerts on different days of completely different works.

LD: So, this is turning into a bigger project than you had envisioned?

AdM: Oh yeah!  Definitely ... It has become a full-time job for sure ...

LD: How are you feeling about the scope of commitment to nurturing and developing something so broad and multi-faceted, over a long term?

AdM: Well the way I see it -- is this is one of my biggest career-defining projects. I had thought pioneering (as people have labeled me) the speaking-singing pianist genre was a big one ... but this is huge because of fund-raising (constant) and all of the wonderful music! I feel good though ... we're batting 100% thus far on the quality of the pieces, especially judging from the responses from audience and critics.

LD: Tell me how this project originated for you.

AdM: I had wanted to do this since around the mid-80's. I originally was going to do it myself ... making transcriptions of about 6-8 of the songs for solo piano, but didn't feel at the time I had the chops compositionally for it. So I did one song for a summer festival and it was OK.  Then I shelved the idea for many years ... but composers and friends kept asking throughout the 90s when I was going to re-visit this and get it done. I have loved Sondheim since I was very young.  I was trained not only as a pianist but also in the theater and dance, so his shows have been a big part of my creative thinking.  I consider him one of the great American composers and the mission of this project is to show his genius and brilliance musically as a composer since he's always been so celebrated as a composer-lyricist. By about 2005-2006 - I decided it was time to get this done and the idea came to me to cast the net wide to a variety of composers crossing multiple genres - contemporary classical - jazz- theater- film- pop- opera- avant-garde and have different "takes" or interpretations on the songs for piano.  Thus the "re-imagining" concept. So I spoke to some composer friends who greatly supported this, and met a wonderful producer who was a fundraiser for the Flea Theater here in NYC (which I had done some work with previously) and she was intrigued and very interested in helping out and has become one of the backbones of the project.
I also had a very close longtime friend in the theater - a theater agent who put us in touch with one of Sondheim's lawyers, (who also happened to be a big Broadway producer) and he sent my note directly on to Sondheim who wrote me back saying he was intrigued and would love to know more about what I was imagining for the project. I sought his input for composer choices, sent him my "wish-list" of songs and list of composers and he responded quite humbly saying (not quoting here exactly) how humbled he was by the fact that so many of my "A-list" composers were interested in setting his melodies.

LD: So, here's a big question. I've been thinking so much, throughout the process of learning/playing/recording 13 WAYS, about the challenge that those thirteen composers faced in responding to Bach's work. I think it took a lot of courage, flexibility and openness. But in the case of Liaisons, the composers face the same challenges, and on top of that Sondheim is very much present and witnessing the whole thing! Has that been terrifying?

AdM: That’s a a loaded question! Some found it very easy to work with Sondheim’s material -  like Ricky Ian Gordon, Fred Hersch, and others.  But a LARGE amount of them have commented that this is one of the most difficult "assignments" they have ever been given. They feel the songs are already so "perfect" the way they are that for many it was a tunnel that had to traveled through to figure out how they would work with it. A couple of the composers almost dropped out from frustration, but magically kept going and were very pleased with what they came up with.  In so many cases, the pieces have become a perfect "marriage" of the composers style and Sondheim.

LD: I would think, too, that the strength of Sondheim’s lyrics in the original songs could present a significant problem. You take the lyrics away - then does the meaning of the song remain the same? Can you move away from the text altogether and reimagine the music without it?

AdM: One can certainly move away from the text and retain the meaning and impact of the song.  Many of these pieces have exemplified that so wonderfully!  One perfect example is David Rakowski -- he chose "The Ladies Who Lunch" from "Company" (which is one of my favorite songs) but I never put it on my list because I thought it wouldn't make a good piano piece since it is so character driven.  But it was his ONLY choice and he did an amazing job of not only capturing the pathos, bitterness and sadness of the character (and her lyrics) but also managed to make a challenging and amazing piano piece out of the song incorporating the "boss nova" style that is so present in the original Some of the pieces are direct transcriptions, others go off in different directions. Some capture the character of the lyrics and the character singing it to a tee and a few have deconstructed, although that was something I generally asked the composers not to do, but it's good to have a few that arc at this point..

LD: I was playing 13 WAYS last week, and I did a post-concert Q&A with the audience. I asked them how much they had been listening for Bach throughout the set - as you know, those pieces move significantly away from Bach, and I always wonder if a new audience is hearing them with an ear that is listening for traces of the original Goldberg Aria throughout. It was really interesting to me to hear a wide range of responses from this audience. Some audience members said that they did keep listening for Bach, and some were able to listen without that, and take a very different journey.

AdM: Well, when I first heard 13 WAYS I was also always listening for Bach in the pieces too and was able to detect it most of the time ... but the wonderful thing about the 13 WAYS set is that you can easily listen to them as individual pieces because they are so rich in color and style.

LD: What is your experience with audiences for Liaisons around this question? Maybe all the pieces in Liaisons stay melodically closer to the original songs?

AdM: In my case, many audience members have said they had no idea what to expect when they came.  Some were very familiar already with the Sondheim canon of work and others not so.  So for some it was hearing it in a completely different context and for others hearing it for the first time.  Since most retain the melody, those not so familiar said that they were surprised to recognize melodies that they knew they had heard somewhere before and liked now knowing the context of what show they were from.  Those familiar with his work most of the time are delighted at how creative the settings are ... and again ... they hear that "marriage" of the composer's individual style and the Sondheim melody.  For some though ... it is a challenge, which is to be expected. I just played Sat. night in Fort Worth on the Cliburn series, and the reviewer does know Sondheim's work very well ... and he said that he was surprised to hear how well they worked withouth the lyrics and how recognizable and colorful the settings were.

LD: I think these projects are fascinating in that way, able to affect different listeners in really different ways.

AdM: Yes I agree completely ... that's part of the joy and intrigue of it I feel.

LD: I've been thinking a lot too about the "three-way conversation" that 13 WAYS presents: I as the interpreter having a dialogue with Bach, but through the third composer who is reinterpreting his work. Are you enjoying that three-way with Sondheim and your Liaisons composers?

AdM: Very much so. In most cases, when I'm ready to play through a new piece for the composer, we invite him/her to my apartment and we work through the piece ... exchanging ideas and hearing the composers reactions and feelings about doing the piece - their challenges, their joys ... and it has been really rewarding.   The funny thing is that at some point -- they all ask (and I detect a touch of nervousness in the question) -- if HE has heard their piece yet and what he thinks of it. 

LD: I should say that Sondheim is someone who scares me to death because I admire him so much! I want to know what's it's been like to work with him. It's funny, I didn't have theater training as you did, but there was a while there when I wanted to be an actor, as a kid. Really though, all I wanted to be was Maria!

AdM: That's funny ... about Maria? You look the part exactly!
I think he scares a lot of people to death because he's so iconic at this point and so celebrated and admired!  I too felt the same way.  I have a great story about the day we first met in person. We did a fundraiser preview at my apartment last January (2011) and we invited him and some of the donors and friends ... this was the first time we were meeting in person after 3-4 years of exchanges.  We of course were nervous wrecks (the producer, myself and my partner Tom - getting the apartment ready - that's another story in itself) -- and when the doorbell rang and I opened the door - there he was with his assistant (also named Steve) and his archivist and one of his lawyers (who happened to really take to the project and wanted to hear it - nice guy!) -- I opened the door and he smiled and said "Hey Tony - Steve Sondheim" and put out his hand.  He came in and the first question he asked me was "So are you nervous?" And I giggled and said "You have no idea!!!"  And he said "Good! Because if you weren't you wouldn't be human!" and then laughed.  From that point - he was completely wonderful the entire evening.  He cried at one point and applauded profusely at Steve Reich's piece!  It was a real memory for me!
In any case, he has been a total joy to work with ... so VERY generous and so accommodating to all of our needs and wishes, wonderfully warm and supportive throughout thus far.

LD: I think Sondheim is an icon both as the genius that he is, and as representing such an amazing generation in American music.Those were the guys who really pioneered the melding of classical and popular styles, brought our music to a completely new place. And now today, I feel like projects such as LIAISONS and 13 WAYS are representative of a  - not a trend - but a current deep interest for musicians and audiences, to mine and explore existing material and retranslate it for our time.

AdM: I agree with you.  They were so influential that way.  And so many of the composers on the LIAISONS roster have admitted how influential Sondheim is/was to them in their careers and work.

LD: Do you see this as the way of the future? Or just a sign of our need to embrace our past in current terms?

AdM: It could be both ... I think the trend will always be there in some way ... or revisited at different points.  If you look at musical history... it's just seems natural that the next generation or two will re-explore what came before and captivated them and influenced them.

LD: I think there's something profound about it, and I'm trying to figure out what it means.

AdM: Yes it is profound in many ways ... especially using material like Bach!  It is so fervent and has so deeply affected people in so many varied ways ... both musicians and lay people.

LD: Yes. I think what's unique about this moment is that we're living in a time of great musical freedom, so that these explorations take a very broad and diverse form.

AdM: So true ... I see it now it so many areas of contemporary music.  There was just a great article in the NY Times on Sunday about the new music group yMusic here in NYC and the new areas that they are moving into.

LD: Despite all the challenges of making a life and a living in music today, we're so fortunate in this open playing field that embraces freedom and different approaches, really!
AdM: Yes you are so right there!

LD: Well, congratulations for conceiving of and executing this project. It's monumental!

AdM: Thanks and the same to you too! I think it's marvelous the great success and traction you've had the past year or so with 13 WAYS ... allowing more and more people to experience it around the country.
The On the Bench Questionnaire 
(with apologies to Proust and Vanity Fair)

What’s the first thing you do when you sit down to practice?
It's always different. I first usually relax and center myself (search for quiet), then decide which works are most important to practice first or which pieces suit my mood to start with at that moment.  As a warmup (if I choose to) -- I'll either improvise freely for a few moments or play some Bach Preludes and Fugues.

What's the last thing you do before you go onstage?
Breathe and say a quick private prayer to my higher self and the universe. (Prefer not to share exactly what I say since it's private.)
If your piano could speak, what secrets would it tell about you?
He rushes when he's anxious, but he's getting better at managing it.  He's at his best when he trusts himself.  He really does manage to get a full range out of what I can offer him. He wishes I would never go out of tune.  ;-)
If you could travel in time to hear one piano recital, which would it be?
Too difficult to answer ... there would be many.  I'm always trying to learn from other pianist's playing.
If you didn’t play the piano, what would you do?
Years ago I would have wanted to be a doctor or a translator, but now I would work with environmental organizations or work with animal organizations.  Possibly areas of astronomy or metaphysics.

Anthony de Mare premieres Liaisons: Re-imagining Sondheim from the Piano at Symphony Space, NYC, Saturday April 21, 7:30 pm. Information and tickets

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