Last Friday night, pianist Anthony de Mare performed pieces from his newest program, “Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano,” captivating the audience with his talent and ingenuity. De Mare’s performance was as informative as it was stunning: Throughout the presentation, both the pianist and the composers of the various pieces described the process of re-working the works of legendary composer Stephen Sondheim ’50 for classical piano.
De Mare, who is renowned for his musical versatility and interpretations of contemporary music, began developing the “Liaisons” project in 2009, after years of wondering what Sondheim’s melodies would sound like as solo piano works. Throughout the years, with advice from Sondheim himself, de Mare invited a team of 36 talented composers, including Wynton Marsalis and Steve Reich, to re-imagine Sondheim pieces such as “Every Day a Little Death” from the musical A Little Night Music. Since premiering in New York, N.Y., in 2012 at a sold-out venue, “Liaisons” has since traveled to San Francisco, Calif., the Ravinia Festival in Illinois and now here to the College, Sondheim’s alma mater.
Beginning his program with “A Little Night Fughetta,” de Mare dove into the ebbs and flows of the music. Composed by William Bolcom, “A Little Night Fughetta” takes Sondheim’s “Anyone Can Whistle” as its theme and “Send in the Clowns” as its countersubject, meshing these two pieces together in a fugue that takes a creative life of its own. With little pause, de Mare transitioned into “Every Day a Little Death,” giving a new classical life to a piece that so many in the audience had previously associated with the voices of characters Anne and Charlotte on Broadway.
De Mare’s next piece was “Color and Light,” from one of Sondheim’s most beloved musicals, Sunday in the Park with George. “Color and Light” is filled with sharp, powerful chords that end in abrupt pauses, which de Mare played fantastically. I watched and listened with awe as his fingers jumped from the lowest registers of the piano to the highest. He then proceeded to captivate the audience with one of the most innovative pieces of his program, “Finishing the Hat – Two Pianos.” Despite the fact that there was only one piano on the stage, de Mare impressively accompanied himself, playing the primo voice on the piano while the secondo voice filled the Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall through the loudspeakers.
Delighting the audience with more Sondheim favorites, including a jazz rendition of “That Old Piano Roll” from the musical Follies, de Mare then introduced and played two pieces from the musical thriller Sweeney Todd. De Mare’s fingers lightly touched the keys in “Pretty Women” before transitioning to the piece “The Demon Barber.” De Mare concluded “The Demon Barber” in a fantastic and furious ending, as the audience eagerly applauded de Mare’s technique and creative approach to Sondheim’s music.
Returning to the recital hall after an amazing first half of “Liaisons,” de Mare began placing coins, poster tack and credit cards on the strings of the Steinway & Sons grand piano, creating a so-called prepared piano. Explaining that each of these items represented a character’s personality in Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods, de Mare then exclaimed the words “once upon a time” and began producing unusual clanging sounds with the piano and using his elbow at times to play the lowest notes. “Into the Woods” perfectly captured the ingenuity of de Mare’s project, as he plucked away at the strings of the grand piano in the spirit of Sondheim’s piece.
De Mare proceeded to play “The Ladies Who Lunch” from Company and “I Think About You,” a rendition of Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind” that captures the obsessive nature of love. Concluding with a piece titled “I’m Excited. No You’re Not” from A Little Night Music, de Mare excitedly played the chords with precise technique, at one point even using his hand to sweep across all the keys on the piano. As de Mare concluded his final piece, the audience applauded and gave him a standing ovation, celebrating both the pianist’s technique and his vision of re-imagining Sondheim for the piano.