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It was a mutual admiration society at Reich and Sondheim: In Conversation and Performance, presented Saturday night as part of Lincoln Center’s increasingly vital American Songbook series. Conceived and co-produced by David Brendel, the two seemingly disparate composers talked about their careers with host John Schaefer as well as generous selections from their vast output performed by a range of guest stars, the evening was both enlightening and entertaining.
At first glance, the work of the theater’s preeminent composer and the pioneer of minimalist music would seem to have little in common. But Sondheim has frequently credited Reich with influencing his work, particularly Sunday in the Park with George, his 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical inspired by the creation of George Seurat’s landmark painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.”
The warmth between the two musical titans was palpable from the first moment, when they engaged in a warm embrace upon hitting the stage. Sondheim said that he’s been of fan of Reich’s for decades, saying that he even persuaded choreographer Jerome Robbins to create a ballet based on his composition “Eight Lines.”
“I gotta take credit for that,” he crowed, to which Reich responded, “Stephen is my best PR agent on the planet.”
The two men discussed their approaches to making music, with Sondheim explaining, “What we’re both interested in are vamps,” adding, “We share a fondness for the same harmonic structures.”
That was evident from the first two musical performances, with Broadway veteran Alexander Gemignani–the son of music director Paul Gemignani, who’s collaborated with Sondheim on such shows as Follies, Pacific Overtures, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd and many others—singing “Finishing the Hat” from Sunday in the Park with George. That was immediately followed by “Finishing the Hat—Two Pianos,” a rearrangement which Reich described as a “slavish imitation.”
Both composers stressed the importance of harmony, with Sondheim admitting that he had little use for pop and rock music because of its reliance on “rhythm and sonic effects.”
“Melody is king,” Reich added. “Melody can be achieved in very odd ways. But the notes matter. If you divorce yourself from melody, you might as well just leave.”
Both commented that their music doesn’t come easily. “I work very hard to make it sound effortless, and so do you,” Sondheim said to his fellow composer.
The audience was treated to the rare privilege of listening to both men introduce performances of their compositions. Some of the descriptions were detailed, and some got directly to the point.
“This is Bobby’s cry for help,” said Sondheim simply before Michael Cerveris‘ impassioned rendition of “Marry Me a Little” from the 1970 musical Company.
Introducing the Ensemble Signal’s performance of “Radio Rewrite,” Reich described how the piece inspired by the Radiohead songs “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” and “Everything in its Right Place” came about after he met the group’s guitarist Jonny Greenwood at a music festival in Krakow, Poland. He also commented that the nearly twenty-minute long piece only vaguely “alluded” to its source material.
Guitarist Derek Johnson delivered a virtuoso rendition of Reich’s piece “Electric Counterpoint,” accompanied by a track recorded by Pat Metheny, its original performer. Reich explained that he when he first got in touch with Metheny to discuss its creation the guitarist advised him, “Write single lines.”
For musical theater lovers, it was a heady experience to watch Sondheim listening to various performers singing such classic songs of his as “Another Hundred People” and “Barcelona.” This is a composer, after all, who can casually begin a sentence by saying “I remember when I was writing Gypsy with Jule Styne…”
Originally announced to run 75 minutes, the evening stretched on for nearly two-and-a-half hours. But even then it barely managed to touch the surface of these two musical giants’ enduring work.
Finishing the Hat: Alexander Gemignani
Finishing the Hat—Two Pianos: Anthony de Mare, Blaire McMillen
Color and Light: Kate Baldwin, Alexander Gemignani
Move On: Kate Baldwin, Alexander Gemignani
Electric Counterpoint: Derek Johnson
Another Hundred People: Kate Baldwin
Barcelona: Michael Cerveris, Kate Baldwin
Marry Me a Little: Michael Cerveris
Radio Rewrite: Ensemble Signal
Poems: George Lee Andrews, Michael Cerveris
Someone in a Tree: Alexander Gemignani, Kate Baldwin, George Lee Andrews, Michael Cerveris
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