MSU Composer Pays Tribute to Sondheim Works

Ricardo Lorenz reimagines tunes for piano in critically acclaimed CD project.

Ricardo Lorenz (right) reviews "The Worst Empanadas in London" with recording engineer Judy Sherman (left) and concert pianist Anthony de Mare (center). Photo was taken at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City, Nov. 2014.


As an international student new to the U.S. in 1982, Ricardo Lorenz encountered the world of American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim while in the opera chorus at Indiana University.

Now, more than 30 years later, the associate professor of composition and chair of the Composition area at the MSU College of Music is paying tribute to the pre-eminent composer through his participation in a prominent CD project with three dozen leading composers.

Conceived by U.S. concert pianist Anthony de Mare, “Liaisons: Re-imagining Sondheim from the Piano” involves an eclectic group of 36 composers who “re-imagined” their favorite Sondheim songs as solo piano pieces. The composers were commissioned by de Mare to contribute a song of their choice and to work within or beyond the boundaries of their genre—be it classical, jazz, indie, pop, musical theatre, or other less-easy to-categorize style. After four years in the making, the entire Liaison collection was released in early fall 2015 through ECM, with some critics calling the three-CD compendium a “Goldberg Variations for the 21st century.”

“I received a letter from Stephen Sondheim himself thanking me for my contribution,” says Lorenz. “The letter hangs framed in my studio as an emblem of my role in the continuous exchange of ideas among a community of peers that includes some of today’s most highly regarded living composers. I am extremely grateful to have been asked to be part of this project.”

Lorenz drew from his Latin American roots and experience singing in the collegiate production of “Sweeney Todd” to create the composition “The Worst [Empanadas] in London.” His piece blends “The Worst Pies in London” and “A Little Priest” to create what he calls a tongue-in-cheek smorgasbord of Latin American grooves that preserve the original features of Sondheim’s works.

Listen to “The Worst [Empanadas] in London,” by Ricardo Lorenz 

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For a full list of recordings, visit the project website.

“I fused and imbued the original songs with syncopated bass lines and piercing jagged, brassy-sounding piano riffs,” he says. “My re-imagination is not so much a clash as it is a counterpoint of cultural references.”

Lorenz says that practically every possible piano technique, approach to harmonization and rhythmic elaboration is represented through the project. The three dozen composers participating in the Liaison project ranged in age from 30 to 75, hail from seven countries, and hold a combined total of 29 Grammy, Pulitzer, Tony, Academy and Emmy Awards.

Video interview with Anthony de Mare about the Liaisons project.

Liaisons. Re-Imagining Sondheim courtesy ECM Records


In addition to Lorenz, composers participating in the project included Steve Reich, Wynton Marsalis, Thomas Newman, Frederic Rzewski, and William Bolcom, among others. Lorenz mentioned that composers were funded by many different private donors and organizations including the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival, the Schubert Club, the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, the Banff Center, in his case, Music in the Loft—one of Chicago’s premiere chamber music presenting organizations. 

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