Scoring Sondheim

Anthony De Mare brings a sneak peek of his project re-imagining Stephen Sondheim for piano to the Smith Center

Anthony De Mare prefers to know the score before seeing a show.

”[As a kid] I used to just go to the record store and go to the Broadway bin and see what was brand new and just buy it, cold, without knowing anything about it,” he says.

Anthony De Mare
Anthony De Mare

De Mare, who grew up in Rochester, N.Y., discovered Stephen Sondheim this way, memorizing soundtracks to Sunday In The Park with George, Pacific Overtures and Company before he ever saw them on stage. Even now, as a contemporary classical pianist, Sondheim still draws him.

”With all the new music I’ve played and all the commissioning I’ve done and work with so many composers, [Sondheim's] music is the one that keeps coming back to me,” says De Mare. “His music runs through my mind all the time.”

De Mare calls his current project, ”Liaisons: Re-imagining Sondheim for the Piano,” a ”career realization.” The project involves 30 composers, drawn from the realms of classical, pop, theater, jazz, even film, each picking a Sondheim song to adapt for solo piano. Next Saturday, April 2, at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Center, De Mare will play a sneak peek of 14 of the arrangements. A total of 36 will be performed next year in New York, accompanied by a recording.

Surprisingly, this has never been done before.

”I know there are different versions of his pieces [but] never for solo piano,” says De Mare. Unlike George Gershwin or Cole Porter, no one has taken on Sondheim’s music.

A major hurdle is that most people think of Sondheim as a lyricist and a composer. Sondheim’s sophisticated lyrics often overpower his sharp music in people’s imagination.

”There’s so much attention put on the lyrics that people I don’t think really put as much emphasis on the music,” says De Mare. ”The emphasis [of the project] is really … to take the attention basically off the lyrics and put it on his writing as a composer.”

De Mare considers Sondheim ”one of the great American composers, right up there with Copeland, John Cage, Samuel Barber, Bernstein. … I put him as one of the major forces of the 20th and 21st century.”

Sondheim has been surprised by the level of interest in this project among notable composers, including Milton Babbitt, William Bolcom, Ricky Ian Gordon, Steve Reich, Bernadette Speach and David Shire. ”He’s very excited and humbled, if you will, by the idea that so many of these composers were interested in setting his melodies,” says De Mare. De Mare solicited Sondheim’s input on composer selection, and has kept Sondheim apprised as things develop. A couple months ago Sondheim stopped by De Mare’s studio to hear a few of the compositions.

”He seemed very delighted with what he was hearing,” De Mare says. ”I’m assuming he’s going to have his thoughts here and there, pro and con about some of the pieces, but he hasn’t said anything negative thus far.”

De Mare initially tinkered with making his own arrangements of Sondheim for piano. His first attempt in the mid-’80s was a piano arrangement of ”Children and Art.” ”It was okay,” says De Mare. “I wasn’t that pleased with it…, [but it] was a good exercise in getting the project started.”

Of the 14 pieces completed so far, De Mare notes, ”I haven’t received one I haven’t liked. Even the producer has said, ‘Gee, we’re batting a good number here.”’

De Mare, who is gay and lives in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, is also on the faculty at the Manhattan School of Music and New York University. He struggles to balance all the work plus a long-time relationship — and the couple’s large Pomeranian. ”It seems like life revolves around walking the dog,” he laughs.

Before De Mare started the Sondheim project in 2006, he had become known as ”the speaking/singing pianist.” He still performs De Profundis, the piece Frederic Rzewski composed for him with an oratorio based on Oscar Wilde’s last letter from prison. He’s also performed another piano piece incorporating spoken word drawn from Allen Ginsberg. He will not employ the technique for the Sondheim performance.

There is, however, one surprise on the bill, a piece by a comedic off-Broadway composer. ”I will just say that he’s done something very unusual with one of the songs,” says De Mare.

Anthony De Mare performs Saturday, April 2, at 2 p.m. at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center’s Gildenhorn Recital Hall, University of Maryland in College Park. Tickets are $42. Call 301-405-ARTS or visit claricesmithcenter.umd.edu.

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