Sondheim Sans Words: Surprise, He’s a Composer

United StatesUnited States  “Symphonic Sondheim”: Nathan Lane (host), Eric Huebner and Steven Beck (pianos), Christopher S. Lamb and Daniel Druckman (percussion), New York Philharmonic, Paul Gemignani (conductor), Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, 29.1.2013 (BH)

Suite from Sunday in the Park with George (1983-84), arr. Michael Starobin
Selections from The Enclave (1973)
Dances from Pacific Overtures (1976)
Suite from Into the Woods (1985-1987)
Suite from Stavisky (1974)
Suite from Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1978-79)

Over the years a certain idea has taken root in some circles, that Stephen Sondheim—creator of some of the most brilliant examples of musical theater in American history—is a better wordsmith than composer. Those acolytes complain that his lyrics are magnificent, but that his songs “can’t be hummed.” (I’m not agreeing, just reporting the news; if anything, that comment may betray the sorry state of contemporary humming.)

Thankfully Paul Gemignani and the New York Philharmonic showed decisively—if imperfectly—that this view is pretty much a lot of nonsense, as any one of the selections on this program demonstrated. (Yes, credit should be accorded to Jonathan Tunick, Sondheim’s longtime collaborator on the original musical arrangements, but still, it’s not as if Tunick had to spin gold from straw.)

The most successful selections preserved much of the composer’s piquant dissonances, rhythmic invention and yes, his gift for melody. (To my ears, the two composers whose influences show up most often are Britten and Ravel.) Dances from Pacific Overtures—which host Nathan Lane confided is his favorite Sondheim show—had pentatonic bite, illuminated by xylophone, wood blocks and bells, and showed a good instinct for assigning just the right instrument to duplicate the normally sung vocal lines. Incidental music for Arthur Laurents’s play The Enclave was sweet yet inky, with four excellent soloists adding to the cocktail lounge flavor: Eric Huebner and Steven Beck on pianos, and Christopher S. Lamb and Daniel Druckman on percussion. Similar urbanity infused perhaps the most successful segment of the evening, excerpts from the score of Alain Renais’s Stavisky (1974), a debonair film about a con man, which Sondheim framed with a suave, world-weary foxtrot as its recurring motif.

Now and then the arrangements veered perilously close to the cheesy, an impression only heightened by having Sondheim’s formidable words excised. Often I couldn’t help adding the texts silently, in my head, which then created unwanted associations of humming along with background music. The suite from Sweeney Todd seemed to suffer the most, especially recalling the orchestra’s magnificent concert version, recorded live in 2000 with a superb cast, in front of an audience roaring its approval. And here and there, ensemble execution flagged, despite Gemignani’s genial podium demeanor; I can’t help but imagine that perhaps more rehearsals might have made a tighter result.

Mr. Lane, in fine form throughout the evening, offered funny quips about Andrew Lloyd Webber, Les Miserables and Manuel de Falla (partial credit for Lane’s lines was given to Mark Horowitz) and even worked in some topical humor, a nod to New York City’s mayor and his much-debated removal of large-sized sodas from grocery stores: “The orchestra looks smaller—perhaps Mayor Bloomberg banned double basses.”


Bruce Hodges