photo: nan melville

Anthony de Mare performing his show, Liaisons: Reimagining Sondheim for the Piano.

At first blush, it’s hard to believe the idea that Stephen Sondheim, the doyen of American musical theater, could somehow be underrated. “He’s thought of mostly as a lyricist,” says Anthony de Mare, the impresario of Liaisons: Reimagining Sondheim for the Piano. “But he’s always had a strong desire to be recognized as a composer.”

De Mare’s Liaisons project commissioned 36 three- to ten-minute piano solos based on Sondheim songs from new-music, Broadway, and film composers, landing names as big as Steve Reich, Marc-Anthony Turnage, and the CSO composer-in-residence Mason Bates. De Mare will perform most of them in two upcoming Chicago-area concerts: at Music in the Loft this Sunday, and at Ravinia in August.

De Mare set parameters, asking the composers to retain the melodic material to keep the songs recognizable and not deconstruct them. (Most obeyed.) “Some of them are direct transcriptions. Some are meditations. Some are fantasies. Some are funny,” he says. The results underscored the aesthetic unity of Sondheim’s work. As an example, de Mare cites David Rakowski’s composition on “Ladies Who Lunch” from Company, a setting that succeeds in conveying the spirit of a character-based song even without lyrics.

The interpretations showed Sondheim through idiosyncratic lenses. The eminent William Bolcom created a little fugue out of “Send in the Clowns” and “Anyone Can Whistle.” The Pulitzer winner Paul Moravec’s “Losing My Mind” rendition almost goes off the deep end, just like the character. The Broadway composer Eric Rockwell’s “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” dramatizes the page-turner from hell.

Originally, de Mare had planned to play a collection of Liaisons pieces at Music in the Loft in December 2011, including Ricardo Lorenz’s “The Worst [Empanadas] in London,” a riff on Sweeney Todd’s “The Worst Pies in London” commissioned by Music in the Loft. But the series’ founder and energizing force, Fredda Hyman, died a week before the concert, and it was postponed until this Sunday.

In the meantime, Ravinia booked de Mare for late this summer. The Music in the Loft concert presents a more intimate setting, something of a preview for the bigger show. Ravinia also enables de Mare to present settings with multimedia elements, such as Steve Reich’s with recorded piano tracks playing alongside de Mare live, as well as projections and filmed interviews with the composers.

De Mare says the project has been so successful that composers have started coming forward to ask to participate. And only a few songs from Passion, Follies, Assassins, and Into the Woods have been snapped up. Maybe another hundred people can pay their respects.

Anthony de Mare performs Liaisons: Reimagining Sondheim for the Piano on April 7 at 3 at Music in the Loft, 410 S Michigan, #801, and on August 25 at 6 in Bennett Gordon Hall at Ravinia, Lake Cook and Green Bay, Highland Park.