By James Reel

Not too many years ago, everybody woke up one fine morning and realized that Stephen Sondheim is one of America’s great composers. Oh, it had been clear since the 1970s that he was a superb theater composer, but because Sondheim specializes in Broadway musicals, his work has had little opportunity to penetrate the classical concert hall.

Today, however, his Sweeney Todd is making the rounds of opera houses, and A Little Night Music—source of the instant standard “Send in the Clowns”—can be found wherever operettas are produced.

Chamber musicians’ access to Sondheim’s work, however, is more limited. Shows by composers like Leonard Bernstein and Andrew Lloyd Webber, for instance, have lent their hit numbers to string quartets, but Sondheim’s music rarely functions that way. For Sondheim, coming up with a freestanding Big Tune is less important than producing a total theater work that tightly integrates music, lyrics, and character. Chipping hits out of a Sondheim show can be as difficult as pulling a suite out of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande.

In 2005, though, the Ying Quartet introduced “Night Waltzes,” a six-to-seven-minute sequence drawn from Sondheim’s 1973 classic, A Little Night Music, which is based on Ingmar Bergman’s atypically warm early film Smiles of a Summer Night. The music is written almost entirely in triple time: waltzes, above all, but also mazurkas, sarabands, a polonaise, even a gigue.

It’s no surprise that Sondheim once claimed he listened to nothing but Bach, given his penchant here for thoroughly romanticized and modernized counterparts to dances found in Baroque suites, not to mention his talent for subtle polyphony. (Far less obvious is the fact that Sondheim studied with the formidable Milton Babbitt, who advised the young Sondheim not to get bogged down in atonality and serialism because he hadn’t yet exhausted his tonal resources.)

A Weekend in the City

The Ying Quartet became involved with Sondheim’s music during the group’s multiyear residency at New York’s Symphony Space, a venue that produces an annual “Wall to Wall” event—12 straight hours of music by a single composer. Sondheim was the honoree in 2005, and for the occasion the Yings provided the accompaniment for a few singers, but also played something on their own: the “Night Waltzes,” three songs from A Little Night Music arranged for string quartet by Michael Starobin.

“It’s a wonderful arrangement,” says violist Phillip Ying. “Michael did an excellent job with quartet texture and orchestration. He does a good job of dividing the parts equally; he passes the melodies through the whole quartet, and there’s some nice counterpoint in there.

“It sounds just like Sondheim, with his tremendous lyricism. He writes vocal lines that work beautifully for string instruments, with swirling accompaniments in the “Night Waltzes” that were often written originally for wind instruments. There are some very chromatic, winding counterpoint lines, and imitating the fluidity of a wind instrument is something we definitely thought about.”

In preparation, the Yings listened to the original cast recording of the three songs that constitute “Night Waltzes.” “It’s important for us to know the text and how it would be sung, because that makes a difference how we interpret it instrumentally,” says Phillip Ying. “Not only that, but most of the waltzes are company pieces, with many different timbres and textures, which makes a perfect translation for chamber music.”

Celebrating What Passes By

According to Ying, the central section, “The Miller’s Son,” neatly illustrates all the various technical and textual issues involved in the piece. “One of the technical issues is getting the right kind of rhythmic swing,” he says. “The whole show pretty much is written in triple time, except for a specific little spot, and that’s in ‘The Miller’s Son,’ where the music breaks into duple time for just a moment. So negotiating the rhythmic transitions effectively is an issue.”

The section’s structure and character are tied directly to the lyrics. “This is the young maid singing,” Ying explains, “and she’s alternating between saying, ‘I should be sensible; maybe I should marry the miller’s son, or maybe the businessman, maybe the Prince of Wales, just so I’ll have a stable life.’ Those are the serious-sounding sections of this song. But then she goes off on this flight of fancy saying something like, ‘A girl has to celebrate her lust for life.’ She says, ‘There are mouths to be kissed.’ So it alternates between ‘I should find a good husband’ and ‘No, I want to live life to its fullest.’ Knowing that is a wonderful way to approach this music, trying to capture the thoughtfulness in the slower parts, and at the same time its tongue-in-cheek nature. Even though the opening sounds serious, when you know the text you know it anticipates what she really wants to say, and this gives the lively sections a real sense of freedom and breaking out.

“So basically you’re looking for rhythmic simplicity in the opening sections, the right kind of rubato, and then finding the rhythmic vitality and articulation to pull off the faster sections.

“One would think about changing the sound, having the right kind of color for the slower, more serious sections, then opening up the sound in terms of bow speed and a soaring quality for the faster sections. The faster section builds from being fleet and articulate to being almost rollicking, so you have to build rhythmic intensity though that part. And you have to alternate between those two sections smoothly. The leading line is very clear, but don’t sacrifice the rhythmic textures around it, especially in the faster passages.”

The Sun Sits Low

“In the first section, ‘Night Waltz 1,’” Ying continues, “you’ve got the same idea of getting the rhythmic swing and lilt; the whole quartet has to participate in that. And then, characteristic of the first section is this winding chromatic line; intonation is a big issue because it’s so chromatic. Make sure of the clarity of the pitches, but also the fluidity of it.”

Ying says hemiola is especially important here; that’s where two units of triple meter are articulated as three units of duple meter, a technique central to the Viennese waltz. “The difference between straight triple time and hemiola gives the music a really nice swing,” he says.

“Night Waltz 1,” he explains, is “a song about the day way up north when the sun doesn’t set; it’s twilight all through the night, and it’s a little unsettling to the characters that the sun never sets. The various characters are voicing their reactions to the strange feeling of the sun never going down, and trying to get that same interplay in a string quartet is very appropriate, and fun.”

Ying is sorry that his group hasn’t had a chance to play Sondheim’s “Night Waltzes” since that Symphony Space appearance. “We’d like to find a way to program it,” he says. “It’s nice to have a piece of this quality that’s short enough to give us some programming flexibility; with some imagination you could integrate it into a program that wasn’t locked into the usual 30-minute works. And it would serve nicely as an encore.”

At this point, Ying says, there’s no point worrying about whether Sondheim will hold up against the usual great composers. “At Symphony Space,” he says, “the place was packed for the whole 12 hours, and people wouldn’t leave. “Night Waltzes” got a fantastic audience response.”

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