STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their weekly playlist. Tune in on Friday, January 12 to hear these pieces and plenty of other new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre!

Angélica Negrón: La Isla Mágica (Innova Recordings)
Eleonore Oppenheim, double bass

Brimming with whimsy and wistful nostalgia, Angélica Negrón’s La Isla Mágica combines punchy, video game-worthy electronics with double bass, percussion, and ambient vocals. Performed here by Eleonore Oppenheim on her debut solo album Home, her bass swings, sways, and dances amid a swirl of technicolor electronics. At times it sounds almost as though she’s in the middle of a theme park, playing among the neon signs, the colorful carnival games, and the translucent stars above. – Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 1pm hour today to hear this piece.


Gabriela Lena Frank: Danza de los Saqsampillos (Naxos Records)
Alias Chamber Ensemble

I seriously can’t get enough of these works by Gabriela Lena Frank, with all their vibrant colors and stunning rhythmic character. Gabriela was born in the US to parents of Peruvian/Chinese and Lithuanian/Jewish ancestry, and much of her music is influenced by her heritage. Danza de los Saqsampillos is inspired by the Peruvian “saqsampillo,” a rambunctious jungle-dweller with a characteristic jumping two-person dance. This performance from the Alias Chamber Ensemble album Hilos is the version for two marimbas.
– Geoffrey Larson

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 3pm hour today to hear this piece.


David Bowie: “Ashes to Ashes” (arr. Bischoff)
Amanda Palmer and Jherek Bischoff

David Bowie once said that “Ashes to Ashes” represented his own feelings of inadequacy about his work not having much importance.  Until “Ashes to Ashes” was released in 1980, much of Bowie’s music was cloaked in concept and personas so the vulnerability and maturity of this song was, among other things, his way of closing that chapter and moving on. In this version, from an album recorded just two weeks following Bowie’s death in 2016, the harsh textures, edginess, and synthesized guitars of the original are replaced with softer melancholy strings and sultry nightclub vocals.  Bowie is celebrated here, not emulated, and that’s what makes this tribute shine.
 Rachele Hales

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 6pm hour today to hear this piece.


David Crowell: “Waiting in the Rain for Snow” (New Amsterdam Records)
NOW Ensemble

This is exactly what waiting in the rain for snow sounds like.

NOW Ensemble’s flute, clarinet, double bass, oboe, piano, and electric guitar combine the excitement and anticipation of dramatic, beautiful flakes drifting from the sky, with the anxious desire to stay dry while the undesirable in-between phase of sleet insistently pounds the pavement in front of you. – Brendan Howe

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 9pm hour today to hear this piece.

Classical Christmas Carols for the 21st Century

by Maggie Molloy

After years of the same old Christmas carols every December, the holiday hymns start to run together. But whether you’re the world’s biggest Santa-fan or a grouchy Ebenezer Scrooge, there’s still a little sparkle of holiday magic to be found in every classical Christmas tune—buried though it may be beneath the corny sing-alongs and ugly sweaters of the winter season.

This year, we’re highlighting composers who break out from the cookie cutter Christmas carols and reimagine holiday classics for 21st century audiences. From time-stretched hymnal melodies to bluegrass banjo solos and synthy washes of sound, today’s composers are getting creative with their Yuletide carols.

Here are our top picks for contemporary Christmas albums that will add some holiday spice to your winter soundtrack:

Jherek Bischoff: Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire Walk with Me (Self-Produced)

Jherek Bischoff’s new EP reimagines your favorite Christmas carols as timeless trios for electric bass, sleigh bells, and synthesizers. Composed in the style of Angelo Badalamenti’s moody Twin Peaks score, Bischoff offers eerie renditions of holiday classics old and new, ranging from John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” to Charlie Brown’s “Christmas Time is Here” and even a synth-laden “Silent Night.”


Imagine Christmas (Sono Luminus)

They’re classic Christmas carols like you’ve never heard them before: reimagined and rearranged by the likes of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, the Jasper String Quartet, the Skylark Vocal Ensemble, Cuarteto Latinamericano, and more. The result is a kaleidoscope of musical styles ranging from lute lullabies to Latin percussion, twinkling piano solos to swinging strings and ambient drones.


Phil Kline: Unsilent Night (Cantaloupe Music)

Phil Kline’s contemporary twist on Christmas caroling captures the sparkle and whimsy of the holidays without any of the corny sing-alongs. Unsilent Night blends shimmering bells, time-stretched hymnal melodies, holiday nostalgia, and ambient noise into an ethereal electroacoustic soundscape. Though originally composed as an aleatoric sound sculpture for outdoor performance, you can listen to the  album from the comfort of indoors.


DePue Brothers Band: When It’s Christmas Time (Beat The Drum Entertainment)

Christmas caroling meets bluegrass jam session in this “grassical” family album featuring a twangy twist on holiday classics. The DePue brothers dance through their own festive arrangements of Christmas hits brimming with sweet strings, infectious grooves, and a whole lot of banjo.

ALBUM REVIEW: Jherek Bischoff’s Cistern

by Geoffrey Larson  

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Photo credit: Alex Stoddard

Cistern is Jherek Bischoff’s anticipated follow-up to his debut album Composed, which featured a quirky, orchestral pop sound. On Composed, Bischoff recorded orchestral instruments separately and layered the sounds to create a full ensemble. With Cistern, he gets help from the excellent NYC-based ensemble Contemporaneous, who provide the orchestral sounds that have become the touchstone of his work. It’s been called “headphone music,” and it is experienced best when enveloped in large headphones. Audiences in Times Square were given just this opportunity, listening to a late-night “Silent Orchestra” performance of Cistern on wireless headphones, accompanied by visuals displayed on massive video screens (a Midnight Moment presented by Times Square Arts).

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Times Square presentation. Photo credit: Jim Batt.

Serenity – that’s the feeling that pervades the music on this album. It’s music that isn’t meant to really excite or engage you in a particular way, but seeks to bring you to a contemplative place. For Bischoff, that place was a massive cistern underneath Fort Worden on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, where he improvised inside a space with a 45-second reverb. This is no place for fast, complex music, and it’s easy to hear the inspiration of this cavernous space in the music of the album, which uses simple, slow motives and a lot of repetition to convey its ideas.

 

The experience of playing in a massive darkened echo chamber is possibly the most closely portrayed by Lemon, the album’s shortest track, and the evocative closing track The Sea’s Son, which use silence to the fullest extent. Interesting orchestration abounds on Cistern from the start of the album, with a toy piano and militaristic percussion entering the mix on the track Automatism. Strings sliding and bending pitch create an interesting atmosphere on the title track, a straight-up passacaglia. The one track to create a bit of tension is The Wolf, playing low instruments off the rest of the ensemble in a hunt-like dance of sound, but it stands apart from the all-encompassing introspection of this album.

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Photo credit: Alex Stoddard

Though music that is relentlessly inward-looking and meditative rarely suits my taste, the melodies and harmonies of Closer to Capture, together with the stop-start of this music’s rhythm makes it the star for me on this new release. It’s also hard not to be swept away by the nostalgia of The Sea’s Son; Bischoff says that as he composed in this album’s slower, almost back-to-basics style, he was reminded of the simpler times of his childhood, growing up on a sailboat in Seattle. As the final track’s unresolved harmony hangs in the air, it’s easy to visualize a human figure standing on the prow of a boat, gazing across the bay. I find that I actually enjoy the music of Cistern much more in film soundtrack form; Bischoff has done a small amount of scoring (i.e. Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer), and I hope we can look forward to more film-related projects from this busy composer.

For more videos featuring Jherek Bischoff, visit our video page for 3 tracks from Cistern recorded right here in our studios with a quartet of the Seattle-based string ensemble, SCRAPE.

NEW VIDEOS: Seattle Rock Orchestra Quintet featuring Tamara Power-Drutis

by Maggie Stapleton

It’s hard to question Seattle Rock Orchestra‘s reputation as “the coolest orchestra in town.” You may have seen their full orchestra cover sets of The Beatles, Neil Diamond, Pink Floyd, Michael Jackson, Muse, Stevie Wonder, but they’re a flexible ensemble that also likes to show a more intimate side of genre pollination.

Featuring the mesmerizing Tamara Power-Drutis on vocals, here are three examples of the pop-art song fusion, filmed on April 9, 2016 at the gorgeous Resonance at SOMA Towers in Bellevue.

Jeremy Enigk (arr. Scott Teske): Ballroom 

Beck (arr. Jherek Bischoff and Scott Teske): Do We? We Do.

Radiohead (arr. Scott Teske): Nude 

These videos were filmed in conjunction with On Stage with Classical KING FM, a concert series designed to spotlight brilliant local musicians and a little something extra, whether it’s food, wine, dancing or exclusive talks. If you like those videos and want to hear more, you can stream more selections from this performance below and on our on-demand audio page!

For information about the 2016-17 On Stage with Classical KING FM season, including a reprise performance of SROQ + Tamara, click here!

2016.04.09: Seattle Rock Orchestra Quintet feat. Tamara Power-Dr

Photo credit: Jason Tang

ALBUM REVIEW: Strung Out in Heaven: A Bowie String Quartet Tribute

by Maggie Molloy

The Starman sent shock waves across the universe when he died last month after a courageous 18-month battle with cancer—and while we continue to mourn the loss of this talented artist and creative visionary, we find comfort in knowing that his sparkling light will never burn out.

David Bowie’s bold vision, fierce courage, and revolutionary music continue to live on in the lives and art of his family, friends, fans, and collaborators. A true artist, he continued creating all the way up until his death—and his musical influence will continue to live on long after.

Within days of Bowie’s death, punk-rock pianist and cabaret songstress Amanda Palmer teamed up with pop polymath Jherek Bischoff to create “Strung Out in Heaven: A Bowie String Quartet Tribute.”

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Arranged, recorded, mixed, and released within just two weeks, the six-song EP also includes six Bowie-inspired works of visual art. The album also features musical contributions from singer-songwriter Anna Calvi and actor, writer, and director John Cameron Mitchell.

The EP was financed by Palmer’s Patreon supporters, and is being sold for $1 on Bandcamp. Part of the money will go to Bowie’s publisher, and the remaining proceeds from the first month of sales will be donated to the cancer research wing of the Tufts Medical Center in memory of Bowie.

 

“I was on the phone with Jherek [Bischoff], discussing another project, and I was feeling a bit trapped in the non-productive new-mother cave—so we joked that we should do a flash Bowie tribute,” Palmer wrote in a statement. “And suddenly, we weren’t joking. I had funding from my 7,000 fans on Patreon to ‘make stuff.’ What better ‘stuff’? We started that night, giving ourselves a deadline of two weeks to release it as a surprise.”

And so in the spirit of surprise Bowie tributes, Second Inversion decided to write a surprise album review. Here are all the things we love about this shimmering Starman string tribute:

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Cassandra Long: “Blackstar”

BLACKSTAR: The album begins with the end: a cover of the title track from Bowie’s final studio album. Palmer and Bischoff turn Bowie’s surreal musical dreamscape into a soulful string lament, with Palmer’s and Calvi’s vocals echoing from opposite ears above layered string melodies. It’s one part mystic hymnal, one part cult cabaret, one part pop poetry, and all parts transcendent.

 

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Sarah Beetson: “Space Oddity”

SPACE ODDITY: Palmer’s husband, author Neil Gaiman, provides the countdown to “Space Oddity,” Bowie’s 1969 interstellar single. Weightless string melodies and pizzicato backdrops sparkle like the stars beneath Palmer’s airy vocals in this nebulous outer-space adventure.

 

 

 

 

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David Mack: “Ashes to Ashes”

ASHES TO ASHES: Palmer and Bischoff strip out the synth from this New Romantic 1980s nursery rhyme and focus instead on its melancholic vocal melodies. Palmer’s theatrical voice floats softly through layers of angular string melodies and deadpan backup vocals—wistful, nostalgic, and “strung out in Heaven’s high.”

 

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Bill Sienkiewicz:”Heroes”

 

 

 

 

HEROES: Of course, the album just wouldn’t be Bowie if it didn’t have a rendition of his 1970s synth-laden serenade, “Heroes.” Effervescent strings propel Palmer’s fervent vocals forward in this heartfelt tribute, with John Cameron Mitchell providing the background vocals for its impassioned climax.

 

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HA-HA: “Helden”

HELDEN: Palmer and Mitchell also team up for an abridged cover of the German version of “Heroes.” Their fiery duet soars triumphantly over a textured string backdrop, paying tribute to a Bowie classic that truly transcends language.

 

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Félix Marqués: “Life on Mars?”

 

 

 

 

LIFE ON MARS?: Bischoff turns Bowie’s surrealist sci-fi anthem into a lively instrumental string serenade, taking the original heartrending melody and transforming it into a happy and hopeful reminder of Bowie’s boundless musical imagination.

 

Because that’s the beauty of Bowie: his creative vision extended beyond genre, geography, or language. Throughout his chameleonic career, he created music that could connect and inspire people from all over the globe, and perhaps even beyond it.

“Music is the binding agent of our mundane lives,” Palmer wrote. “It cements the moments in which we wash the dishes, type the resumes, go to the funerals, have the babies. The stronger the agent, the tougher the memory, and Bowie was NASA-grade epoxy to a sprawling span of freaked-out kids over three generations. He bonded us to our weird selves. We can be us, he said. Just for one day.”

In the end, Bowie’s contributions to the world of music extend far past the confines of rock, glam, pop, or classical genres, reminding us that when it comes to art, the sky is the limit—and a creative spirit like his belongs right up alongside the stars. Rest in peace, Starman.

“The man, the artist, exits,” Palmer wrote. “But the music, the glue; it stays. It never stops binding us together.”

Second Inversion’s Top 5 Moments of 2015

2015 has been a huge year for us! Besides filling the 24/7 stream with new music and insights, we kept busy out in the community, on the blog, and making videos! This is the final post in a series of “Top 5 of 2015” lists (check out our Top 5 Videos and Top 5 Albums) before we plunge into 2016.  Here are our top 5 moments/events/milestones/projects/good times:

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#5: John Cage Diary Series

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Armed with high-quality headphones and book in hand, over the course of eight weeks, Second Inversion’s Maggie Molloy listened through each of the eight parts of Cage’s Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse)recently published by Siglio Press, and created her own personal diary tracking the experience.

She gracefully navigated through the zigzagging maze that is Cage’s musical mind and shed light on some fascinating aspects of Cage’s life: his love of mushrooms, cats, anechoic chambers, technology (it’s arguable to say Cage may have predicted the internet), dance, and so much more.  Dive in from the beginning and let her guide you through this incredible series! Stay tuned for more great creative features and clever wit from Maggie M. in 2016!


#4: Live Broadcasts

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In 2015 we presented SEVEN live streaming broadcast concerts from Town Hall Seattle and Meany Hall, including Third Coast Percussion, Catalyst Quartet, Deviant Septet, SYSO Alums and Mentors, Johnny Gandlesman, ETHEL and Robert Mirabal, Ensemble Variances with Lisa Bielawa! These broadcasts allowed us to connect with concert-goers in the community while reaching audiences nation and world-wide on our 24/7 stream! Many of them are also available on our live concerts on-demand page Stay tuned for plenty more in 2016.


#3: Music Videos (& a New Music USA Grant)

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We’re grateful for all of the foundation support we’ve received for Second Inversion this year! Our grant from New Music USA was particularly exciting because it to helped fund our music videos. Our video stars include Joshua Roman, Turtle Island String Quartet, Jherek Bischoff, Ashley Bathgate, Danish String Quartet, musicians from OneBeat, Christopher O’Riley and Matt Haimovitz, and so many more. It’s been a wildly fun journey connecting with artists who are passionate about sharing new music with audiences. We’re incredibly grateful for the time they donated to be a part of this project! Check out the complete video collection on our video page.


#2: Northwest Folklife Festival

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In 2015 we had our first Northwest Folklife Showcase – really, our first public performance of any kind! The Passenger String Quartet and Seattle Cello eXperiment performed for an absolutely packed Center Theatre. It was an amazing opportunity for us to contribute to Folklife’s diverse music and cultural offerings and to connect with new audiences. Some showed up expecting a more traditional “classical” concert and instead were able to Rethink Classical. Needless to say, we’ll be back for a 2nd showcase in 2016!


#1: Joshua Roman named Artistic Advisor

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In March of 2015, Second Inversion brought Joshua Roman on board as the Artistic Advisor! Joshua has helped us “Rethink Classical” with our Seattle community and our national and global audiences by posting to our blog, introducing music on our 24/7 stream, and collaborating on new ideas and initiatives. Stay tuned for more from Joshua in 2016!

ALBUM REVIEW: Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim from the Piano

by Rachele Hales

I was excited – well, excited and scared – to be given the opportunity to review Anthony de Mare’s latest album of Stephen Sondheim “re-imaginings.”  Excited because Sondheim’s impact on me was very strong as I was one of many children who listened; scared because I didn’t want to find flaws in the interpretations that might underscore my devotion to the originals.  After listening to Liaisons: Re-imagining Sondheim From the Piano several times, I can calm similar worries other listeners may have by entreating you to remember that “the way is clear, the light is good/ I have no fear, nor no one should.”

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Thirty-six composers from a wide variety of backgrounds were commissioned by Anthony de Mare to re-imagine a Sondheim song of their choice as a solo piano piece.  The result proves that things change – but they don’t, when you make something that lasts.  Mark Eden Horowitz, author of Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions, puts it this way: “One of the reasons Liaisons succeeds so brilliantly is because Sondheim’s music is such a rich source for sounds, ideas, and approaches.”  Too true.  The pleasure of Liaisons is hearing how thirty-six other Sondheim fans engage with his music in their own ways.  There are thirty-seven selections in the 3-CD collection.  So many worth exploring, just one would be so boring.  Alas, it’s impossible to review them all here but you can listen to samples of each glorious one at the Liaisons Project website.  With that said…  Curtain up!  Light the lights!  Play it, boys!

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Once upon a time, all your favorite fairytales were combined into one story about loss and confusion.  Oh yeah, and nearly everyone dies.  Sondheim’s original prologue to Into the Woods acts as both exposition by introducing us to each character and also provides a path through the show.  Andy Akiho’s version takes us into the woods, where witches, ghosts and wolves appear, by maintaining the driving rhythm of the original but allowing each character’s narrative/personality to speak with the clever use of a prepared piano.  Dimes were used on the strings for the cow scenes, door knocks and narration utilized poster tack, and the witch is portrayed by clusters of credit cards.  Akiho’s use of these found objects to alter the timbre is just as effective and innovative as Sondheim’s witty spoken narrative.

When asked about his intent with the Into the Woods’ climactic ballad “No One is Alone,” Sondheim replied, “What I truly mean is that no action is isolated.”  One action you can take is to write a musical, only to find its score the subject of a landmark commissioning twenty-nine years later.  Fred Hersch drew from his jazz background to make subtle changes to the piece.  In doing so, he’s maintained the purity and simplicity of the original but plumped it up to create a lusher sound.  It feels less like an arrangement and more like a fantasia.

With Kenji Bunch’s selection we attend the tale of Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of fleet street.  Sweeney Todd is based on an urban legend (though some claim the story is true) from Victorian London about a barber who seeks revenge upon the corrupt judge who sentenced him to unjust incarceration, raped his wife and caused her insanity, and eventually kept Todd’s daughter Joanna as his ward for lustful reasons.  Todd’s revenge of choice?  Slitting the throat of the judge (and other clients) and partnering with his amoral landlady to grind the flesh, use it as fillings for her meat pies, and turn a handsome profit.  It’s a musical thriller that wonderfully sustains fear and anxiety throughout, which Bunch amplifies to horror-show levels with “low register rumblings, shrieking high clusters, and insistent rhythmic ostinato patterns.”

Venezuelan composer Ricardo Lorenz turns those meat pies into spicy empanadas with his “Worst Pies In London”/”A Little Priest” combo.  Mrs. Lovett’s cheeriness shines through here with help from a range of Latin American styles including tango, salsa, and merengue.  But is it any good?  Sir, it’s too good, at least.

“Green Finch and Linnet Bird” is Joanna’s song to the caged birds she identifies with while sequestered in the judge’s home.  Toward the end of the original number there’s a trill notated for the singer and Jason Robert Brown found his way into the arrangement through that trill.  Rather than focusing on Joanna, he’s chosen instead to paint pianistic portraits of the birds.  A charming notion, but the aviary became too complex.  He thought one was enough; it’s not true.  It takes two to play his “Birds of Victorian England.”

Hopping across the pond to a bit of American history now, we get a couple arrangements from Assassins, a show that’s about exactly what it says on the tin.  “The inverse of the American Dream is the American Nightmare, which confuses the right to pursue happiness with the right to be happy,” writes Horowitz.  In Sondheim’s opening song, “Everybody’s Got the Right,” our presidential assassinators/assassination attempters sing out this misguided philosophy (aim for what you want a lot/everybody gets a shot/everybody’s got a right to their dreams…) as they purchase their weapons from the gun proprietor.   Michael Daugherty inserts snippets of “Hail to the Chief” as reminders of the show’s subject and ends the piece by spinning out the opening chords until they “explode like a volley of gunfire.”

Sondheim turned the poem Charles Guiteau wrote the morning of his execution (“I Am Going to the Lordy”) into a cakewalk march to the gallows in “The Ballad of Guiteau.”  Guiteau’s trial was famous not just because he assassinated President Garfield, but also because he was, as one doctor testified, a “morbid egoist” who delighted in the attention he received during the trial.  A media sensation, he smiled and waved at spectators throughout the trial (and even as he walked up to the gallows, where he stopped to read said poem, going so far as to request that an orchestra play behind him while he read).  Right up until his conviction he thought he’d have a good chance of becoming president himself and considered running.  Why am I writing about history instead of music?  Because the way Jherek Bischoff plays Sondheim’s original histrionic promenade against moments of emptiness perfectly suits the sad, ridiculous insanity of Guiteau’s mindset.

Having just a vision’s no solution, everything depends on execution.  Anthony de Mare’s work on this project has, bit by bit and piece by piece, amounted to a thoroughly enjoyable collection that sounds like thirty-six composers having a musical conversation with America’s preeminent composer of musical theatre.  Liaisons offers up something familiar, something peculiar, something for everyone.

In this 2013 image released by ECM Records, Anthony de Mare, left, and Stephen Sondheim pose in New York. Pianist Anthony de Mare and three dozen composers had put their own imprints on songs Sondheim wrote over the past half-century, a tribute to the man who redefined Broadway. "Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim From the Piano" was released last month as a three-disc set by ECM. It features 37 original compositions by an All-Star team of composers. (Nan Melville/ECM Records via AP)

Anthony de Mare, left, and Stephen Sondheim pose in New York. (Nan Melville/ECM Records via AP)