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OT: On Stephen Sondheim


David Emm
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 Food for composer thought.

...

 

 Toward the end of his life, Stephen Sondheim—who died on November 26, 2021, of cardiovascular disease, at the age of ninety-one—sat for a number of interviews with me. The idea was that I would publish a Profile of him timed to the première of a new musical that he was writing with David Ives based on Luis Buñuel’s films “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” and “The Exterminating Angel.”

 

 The composer began our journey with zeal, but soon, like a Sondheim character, he became archly ambivalent. He expressed worry that the presence of an outside observer would affect the creative process. What’s more, he wrote to me, “I’ve been, to use a phrase I’ve never used except in mockery, the cynosure of all eyes. And to use another phrase I’ve never used because I feel too old to do so, it’s bummed me out. I’d forgotten how much I hate being in the spotlight, which is one reason I became a writer instead of, as I was urged to be at age fifteen, a concert pianist. (I wasn’t good enough, anyway.)” Nevertheless, we continued to correspond—and to meet for other pieces—until his death.
   ~ D. T. Max, from The New Yorker

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"Your Honor, according to witnesses,
    Miss Congeniality led the attack
     with a kick to the groin."
           ~ Dan Fielding

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There are many aspects of music and music making.  Is it even possible to be great at them all?  Probably not. At least not in one lifetime.  And maybe it’s better that way. Wonderful things come from collaborating.  

Yamaha CP88, Roland VR-700, Crumar Mojo, rebuilt 1910 Chickering 5'2", Fender Rhodes MKI 88k, Casio PX-560

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I love his creative output, but am particularly astonished by his capacity as a teacher. I won't link them here, but on YouTube, if you reach for "Sondheim teaches", you'll run across some classes he gave for the students at Guildhall. He is a jaw dropping combination of love of the art, compassion for the student and a scary precision of expression. 

 

I keep playing these videos from time to time, hoping the magic will somehow rub off. ❤️

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10 hours ago, Tusker said:

I love his creative output, but am particularly astonished by his capacity as a teacher. I won't link them here, but on YouTube, if you reach for "Sondheim teaches", you'll run across some classes he gave for the students at Guildhall. He is a jaw dropping combination of love of the art, compassion for the student and a scary precision of expression. 

 

I keep playing these videos from time to time, hoping the magic will somehow rub off. ❤️

The video of Sondheim working with students on “Not Getting Married” is fantastic on a few levels. The student singing Amy is amazing as is Sondheim’s beaming face while she’s nailing it. 

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Every now and then another musician, listening to my songs, will cue in on my semi-secret past life as a musical theater composer. Sondheim was and will forever be a creative giant of the 20th century. His New York Times obituary called him "without peer," and I believe that to be true. Thanks for sharing.

Samuel B. Lupowitz

Musician. Songwriter. Food Enthusiast. Bad Pun Aficionado.

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I always resist deifying artists/teachers because:

1. It's too easy to substitute the impact or love of a person's artistic output for a love of the person, even when we do not know the person.

 

2. Great art is not always created by great (ethically, morally) people. If I truly believe that great art can stand on its own even when the creators are flawed, then it behooves me to keep the line between art and artist clear in my vision. 

3. As an educator, hero-worship is not a trait I want to model or encourage. Hero-worship encourages the worshiped to take advantage of their situation in small and big ways, and it also creates a dynamic in which the worshipers convince themselves to tolerate inappropriate behavior (again, in both small and big ways) because of the esteem in which they hold the famous person.

That said, I spend most of my artistic time in the musical theater world, and it is hard to underestimate Sondheim's impact to the art form over his ~20 most productive years. It is also hard to understate the degree to which he seems to have taken his position as mentor, educator, and champion of the creative process seriously, nor is there any doubt that he imbued that position with kindness and compassion.

Sondheim was truly a giant in the sky, and seems to have been not only a great composer, but a positive force for "good" within the industry.  As Sam quotes, "without peer" among his peers seems apt.

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9 hours ago, Mark Zeger said:

The video of Sondheim working with students on “Not Getting Married” is fantastic on a few levels. The student singing Amy is amazing as is Sondheim’s beaming face while she’s nailing it. 

Slightly OT, but I MD'ed a production of Company many years ago - amateur cast, but our Amy was a talented aspiring professional working pro bono because she loved the part.

 

Anyway, she said that the band were playing "Not Getting Married" too fast. We agreed a tempo, and our keyboardist (I was playing bass) synced his Korg M1's metronome to that tempo - even at zero volume it flashed a red LED which gave us a consistent tempo that she was happy with.

 

Every night we played the song exactly at that tempo. And every night she complained that we rushed it! The actor vs musician stereotype lives on.

 

This was the woman who introduced me to my wife, so I bear absolutely no grudge...

 

Cheers, Mike.

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