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.


LOOKING AT THE GOLDBERGS Part IV: Christopher Taylor

Christopher Taylor gets called things like "a genius" (San Francisco Classical Voice) "a pianist of equally nimble intelligence and imagination" (The New Yorker), and "so talented it's almost frightening" (The Boston Globe). He's a pianist's pianist - no time for flash or hype - a musician dedicated, in his almost frightening way, to the serious art of making serious music.

Taylor's projects lean towards the monumental and thorny: Messiaen's Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jesus, all 130 minutes of it, performed by memory; all 28 Ligeti etudes; the complete Liszt Transcendental Etudes... His musical propensity to tackle such complexities reflects the rather intimidating scope of his intellectual abilities -  this is someone who  graduated summa cum laude from Harvard with a mathematics degree in 1992, just two years after winning first prize in the William Kapell International Piano Competition.

Most lately, Taylor has been immersed in the world of the Goldberg Variations, touring a fascinating performance of the Goldbergs executed on the  Steinway–Moór Concert Grand, a unique dual-manual model D Steinway equipped with the double keyboard mechanism developed in the '20s by the Hungarian composer and inventor Emanuel Moór. This Berlin-made piano was purchased by the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1961 for the use of Gunnar Johansen, who was artist in residence at the university at the time. After Johansen's death, the piano remained unused for many years until Taylor, who joined the UW faculty as Associate Professor of Piano Performance in 2000, initiated a complete restoration of the instrument to performance quality. Since the piano's restoration in 2007, Taylor has brought the piano around the country for stunning performances of the Goldbergs at venues including the Caramoor Festival, Ravinia, the Gilmore Festival, the Krannert Center, the Gardner Museum and the Kennedy Center. He brings the project to the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts at UC Davis next season. We talked about Taylor's way of looking twice at the Goldbergs.