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A dozen riffs on Sondheim

Posted 10:15am on Sunday, Feb. 05, 2012

Just when you thought that there wasn't anything new in piano recitals anymore, along comes Anthony de Mare and the Cliburn at the Modern concert series. The program he presented Saturday afternoon, in the intimate concert hall at the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, was a fascinating fusion of musical genres.

De Mare's concept was to take songs by Broadway's megahit composer Steven Sondheim and let a select group of American classical composers use them as starting points for new compositions. The happy result is this concert: "Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim."

De Mare is a first-class pianist with a reputation for playing contemporary music, so his list of composer friends is a virtual who's who of American music. Twenty responded, and on Saturday, we heard 12 of the results beautifully performed by de Mare, who also offered brief commentary.

In Ethan Iverson's clever take on Send in the Clowns (from A Little Night Music), the familiar song was evident. In others, such as Paul Moravec's compulsive disorder version of Losing My Mind (from Follies), the tune is buried under a jittery peak into madness. Minimalist Steve Reich was true to form with a constantly repeated rhythmic pattern in Finishing the Hat (from Sunday in the Park with George). His innovation was to write the piece for two pianos, with de Mare playing both parts, thanks to a recording. Jake Heggie, whose Moby-Dick was a sensation when the Dallas Opera presented it a year ago, furnished the big ending with a razzle-dazzle version of I'm Excited. No, You're Not (from A Weekend in the Country). Eric Rockwell made a theater piece out of You Could Drive a Person Crazy (from Company). Moderator Shields-Collins Bray played the notated part of the world's most inept page-turner in high Victor Borge style.

Other big-name composers contributing to the program included William Bolcom, Ricky Ian Gordon, Gabriel Kahane, Ricardo Lorenz, Fred Hersch, Kenji Bunch and David Rakowski.

While each piece is a fascinating exploration of a composer's styles and the durability of Sondheim's songs, any program that consists of a collection of short pieces feels choppy. Hopefully, many of these new compositions will find their way onto more traditional recitals in the future.

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