Music Review: Philharmonic’s ‘Symphonic Sondheim’ at Avery Fisher Hall

February 2nd, 2013

“Attend the score of ‘Sweeney Todd,’ ” Nathan Lane said, tweaking the lyric to the ballad that opens the masterpiece musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler. The occasion was a special New York Philharmonic program on Tuesday night at Avery Fisher Hall, titled “Symphonic Sondheim,” devoted to orchestral arrangements of suites from four of Mr. Sondheim’s musicals, along with incidental music to a play, “The Enclave,” and a suite from the film score for “Stavisky.” Mr. Lane was the droll host. On the podium was the great Sondheim maestro Paul Gemignani.

The idea was to put all the focus, for once, on Mr. Sondheim’s music, absent his lyrics, though to Sondheim devotees the words are so memorable it is hard to hear an orchestra playing “Joanna” or “Pretty Women” and not think of them. Yet as a composer Mr. Sondheim is a towering figure. Just ask other composers. So it was fascinating to have this chance to bask in his music alone, in arrangements by his longtime orchestrator Jonathan Tunick. Michael Starobin, William D. Brohn and Don Sebesky.

Just how good that music is, as music, came through in the first work the Philharmonic played, a Suite from “Sunday in the Park With George,” arranged by Mr. Starobin, who was the original orchestrator. The suite opens with instrumental flickers that outline tangy harmonies. There are passages that come from transitional moments in the score. But soon the suite settles into orchestrated renditions of the familiar songs: “Move On,” “Putting It Together” and more, ordered in a way to make musical, not dramatic, sense.

Purely musical elements in the songs — rippling rhythmic riffs that keep the energy flowing, skittish bursts of inner voices, decorative filigree, pungent harmonies, the jumpy sputtering melodic writing in “Putting It Together” — all came through in fresh ways in these orchestra-only versions.

The work that was the most suitelike, with some pauses between the sections, was actually titled Dances from “Pacific Overtures,” the 1976 musical by Mr. Sondheim, with a book by John Weidman, about Commodore Perry’s visit to Japan as viewed by the Japanese. This suite is a substantial work, lasting some 25 minutes. Arranged by Mr. Brohn, it comprises instrumental versions of several songs and ensembles, including “Pretty Lady” and the musically subtle and emotionally complex “Someone in a Tree.”

This suite has as much flow and design as many suites that have made it to the repertory of symphonic orchestras, like Ravel’s “Mother Goose” Suite. I would think a Sondheim suite would entice many classical music conductors.

But someone at the Philharmonic should make sure that the score to selections from “The Enclave” makes it across the street to the Juilliard School right away. There are bound to be pianists and percussionists there who will want to play it. “The Enclave” is a 1973 play by Arthur Laurents for which Mr. Sondheim wrote incidental music. The story, pioneering for its day, centers on a group of friends in Manhattan. One reveals that he is gay and wants to bring a young lover into the group, which causes anxiety among urbanites who think of themselves as tolerant.

For the play Mr. Sondheim wrote modern-edged music for piano and percussion, here performed by the pianists Eric Huebner and Steven Beck, and the percussionists Christopher S. Lamb and Daniel Druckman. The music is driven by spiraling rhythmic figures, alternating chunky chords, and Impressionistic harmonies with a Broadway twist.

The other rarity was the Suite from “Stavisky,” the 1974 Alain Resnais film, a mystery about a 1930s con man in Paris. In Mr. Tunick’s orchestration the suite is eerily mellow and alluring, with echoes of Ravel, complete with a plaintive saxophone that suggests a jazzy Paris night spot. Mr. Sebesky was the arranger of the lively Suite from “Into the Woods.”

The program ended with the “Sweeney Todd” Suite, also arranged by Mr. Sebesky, which sounded bright and fresh in this performance. Many of the players applauded when Mr. Sondheim stood to take a bow during the inevitable ovation.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: February 2, 2013

A music review on Thursday about “Symphonic Sondheim,” a New York Philharmonic program at Avery Fisher Hall, using information from the program, misidentified the arranger of three of the suites of music from Stephen Sondheim musicals that were performed. Dances from “Pacific Overtures” was arranged by William D. Brohn, and the suites from “Into the Woods” and “Sweeney Todd” were arranged by Don Sebesky. Those works were not arranged by Jonathan Tunick, who as the review correctly noted, did arrange the suite from “Stavisky.”

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