Posts By: willcwhite

Do the Right Thing

A post-mortem on Stephen Sondheim’s posthumous production

I went to New York this past weekend to see the world premiere of Here We Are, the musical that Stephen Sondheim was working on at the time of his death in November, 2021. If he’d only been alive to complete it, it would have been wonderful. But he didn’t, so what we have is an incomplete masterpiece.

The existence of a masterpiece left incomplete at the time of its author’s death compels a question upon the people left responsible for the work: what’s the “moral” way forward? Do you let the public hear it in its incompletion? Do you guard it? Do you destroy it? How do you do the right thing?

Before I get into the solution proffered by Sondheim’s estate and his co-creators — and my opinion thereof — let’s take a brief diversion into musical history.

The Classics

The two most famous incomplete works in the classical canon are Mozart’s Requiem and Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony. 

In the case of the Mozart, they did the wrong thing: the widow Constanze brought in two of her late husband’s colleagues to comb through his remaining sketches and bring the work to completion. Franz Xaver Süssmayr did the lion’s share of the work and wrote some of his own original music to fill in gaps (including complete movements) where no Mozart sketches existed.

This collaborative version of the piece was accepted into the repertoire early on, and it now has a performing tradition of well over two hundred years, so most folks have decided to be okay with it (including me.) But in recent years, musicologists have come to think that they know better than musicians who actually interacted with Mozart while he was alive, and it seems that new completions are cropping up with increasing regularity. This is doing even wronger things.

In the case of Schubert’s B minor symphony, the unfinishedness was leveraged as a selling point (doubtless due in part to the romanticized history of Mozart’s Requiem) and even though Schubert left behind a third movement in short score (and even about a hundred measures in full score) this movement has never caught wind, though it has been completed by scholars. The completion has occasionally been performed and it has been recorded, so you can listen to it right now if you’re interested. This is doing the right thing: the greater public can hear what Schubert actually wrote, and the cognoscenti can listen to a realization of what Schubert might have written, understanding the context full well.

The Stage

Opera offers more gray areas than purely instrumental music, because a composer generally composes the music of an opera to a fully-formed pre-existing libretto. So if the music of the opera is close enough to the finish line, it can be possible — and justified — to finish the piece by bringing the composer’s work to its logical conclusion using sketches and grafting on music from earlier in the show (particularly in music dramas that use leitmotivs) as was the case with Puccini’s Turandot and Berg’s Lulu (one of Sondheim’s favorites.)

I think both of those completions fall into the “do the right thing” category because it would be such a loss not to be able to hear the work that these great artists did write, but you can’t just truncate the story ten minutes before its conclusion. In theory, you could stop the music and have the singers simply speak the rest of the libretto, but this would be jarring to the point of distraction in a thru-composed work and would completely ruin the effect of everything that had come before.

However, this is not the case with musicals, and this brings us to the curious case of Here We Are.

Words and Music

The development history of this show was chronicled quite ably by Frank Rich writing for Vulture. To sum it up, the team (Sondheim, writer David Ives, and director Joe Mantello) had been working on the piece since the early 2010s. Lacking any real production deadlines, Sondheim did what he was wont to do and chipped away at the songs bit by bit, putting it together in a procrastinatory fashion. 

(To give the guy a break: he was in his ninth decade, he was managing several film adaptation projects and stage revivals, and he was — seemingly — responding personally to every random scrap of paper that had ever been addressed to him.)

In September of 2021, Sondheim went on Colbert and announced that the project was picking up steam again, and that he hoped it would be produced in the coming season. Two months later, the day after Thanksgiving, he died.

When Sondheim died, he had written all the songs and scene for the first act, as well as the first three numbers of the second act. That’s a substantial amount of material, enough that a case could be made for going forward with the project. But how to go forward? Should they fill the gaps in the second act with reprises from the first? Should they hire a composer to write ersatz-Sondheim, perhaps based on his sketches? Should they simply end the show with the third song in the second act? What’s doing the right thing — by Sondheim, by the producers, by the audience?

To the immense credit of the producers of Here We Are at the Shed, the solution they have chosen is both the simplest one and the right one to boot: after the third song the second act, the second act of Here We Are becomes a straight play bereft of singing. As you may have read in the Frank Rich piece, the final 45 minutes of the show do include a few instrumental cues based on earlier music, but these cues come fewer and further between as the show continues, such that the greater part of the second act feels notably different than everything that preceded it.

These Are My Takes

I love everything that Sondheim wrote for this show, and I am eternally thankful that the show has been produced so that people like me can have a chance to see and hear it. But there is no question of it being a completed work — it is not. And I say this in spite of what Ives and Mantello told Frank Rich, namely that this “two-thirds sung, one-third spoken” concept was a deliberate dramaturgical decision made by the creative team prior to Sondheim’s death, on the grounds that the material demanded it.

Their claim is that because the characters in the second act find themselves stuck in one place, it doesn’t make sense for them to keep singing. My counterclaim is that this is complete and total bullshit.

I’m not saying that Ives and Mantello are necessarily lying, because it’s possible to believe that they had actually reached such an agreement with Sondheim. The scenario I imagine is this: 

With a production announced and a deadline finally looming, Sondheim was struggling to finish the score (par for the course with him), and his co-authors didn’t have the deftness of touch that Hal Prince and James Lapine had had in compelling him to work. So they created a well-intentioned excuse that would let him off the hook, but also let them move forward with the production, and Sondheim leapt at this “gentleman’s agreement.” 

That may well be what happened, but if it is, I think it’s important to acknowledge the reality that these three creators chose to enter into a shared delusion for practical purposes; this was not a path born of legitimate artistic values.

All you have to do is watch the show to reach the conclusion that it was meant to have been musicalized. There’s nothing in the libretto after that third song of the second act that is so radically different from what preceded it that it begs for dry recitation. In fact, there are several moments that positively cry out for songs, the two most notable being a long conversation between two characters about the meaning of life, and the very end of the show, where you’d expect a big reprise.

Now, assuming that my hypothetical scenario was what actually transpired – that there was a tacit agreement to move the show forward as a musical-play hybrid and thus let Sondheim off the hook – I know in my heart of hearts that Sondheim would have seen this version and written the remaining songs in show. Sondheim had a long history of building the plane at 30,000 feet (not unlike most other musical theater writers) and there are many spectacular examples of him writing his best work on short notice during previews (“Comedy Tonight”, “Send in the Clowns”, “Children and Art”, etc.) I think it’s a good bet that he would have completed the show even more brilliantly than he had begun it. 

So my one and only complaint in this whole saga is that Ives and Mantello are propagating this white lie that the show as it stands is what Sondheim really wanted it to be. It’s just not, and that’s ok. These guys have done the right thing by mounting the show with the songs that Sondheim wrote and letting us see the rest in draft form, thus allowing us to understand the full shape of the piece. But there’s no denying that it goes from color to black and white.

Once again, I’m purely grateful and not at all sorry that I got to experience Here We Are. (Speaking of which, they should have gone with Sondheim’s title, Square One.) I doubt this show is going to get produced many more times. Maybe they’ll take it to London, and perhaps a few regional theaters will mount their own productions, but this work can’t be said to be part of the canon. I’m sure they’ll film it, and I hope they’ll release the video and audio recordings.

Here We Are is a little world unto itself, but it’s a stump. It will always be a stump, but with this production, we can appreciate it for what it is and imagine what it might have been.


My friends Kyle and Colm and I recorded a conversation for Kyle’s podcast after seeing the show for the second time, and you can listen to that here:

Suite for Solo Cello, op. 36

I composed this piece during the first few months of 2018 when I didn’t have much else to do. Why? Who can say? One always wishes to test one’s skills against those of the great masters. Funnily enough, I’m not especially keen on Bach’s cello suites, but I consider his solo violin partitas and sonatas the pinnacle of what a composer can write for strings.

I tried to interest people in the suite for several years, either to record it or perform it or both. Alas, several passages were unplayable as written, kind of surprising when you consider that it was written by a violist. I tend to write daunting music for strings because I was never a particularly good string player, and I just assume that real instrumentalists can play anything.

My friend Ryan (the cellist featured in the demo recording on YouTube) was the person who finally took on this project, and he improved the piece tremendously; any further cellists who take this on have him to thank.

One reason that I got myself into so much trouble is that my listening habits veer strongly toward music for viola da gamba. As I wrote about in the blurb on my solo bass piece “Tombeau / Les Rêves”, I’ve been obsessed with that repertoire since encountering Tous les matins du monde as a kid. The problem is that the viola da gamba typically has six or seven strings, and they’re tuned closer together than on the cello. So the sonorities ringing in my ears are not necessarily the most idiomatic on the cello.

And yet, it can be played, as Ryan has proven.

Harmonia 2023–2024: Prophecy

The time has come for me to present Harmonia’s upcoming concert season, in which every single program fills me with exuberant happiness at the prospect of being able to conduct such wonderful music. If you’re in Seattle (or if you remain partial to livestreamed concertizing) I would encourage you to subscribe today!

The season theme is Prophecy and if that doesn’t pique your curiosity, I don’t know what will!


SHOSTAKOVICH Festive Overture
MUSSORGSKY arr. RAVEL Pictures at an Exhibition

Find me a more festive season opener than this one — I dare you! What I like about this concert is the elegance of the nationalistic equation: Russian + French = Russian+French.

The Seasons

HAYDN The Seasons

When I tell my buddies in the orchestra world that I’m going to do The Seasons this year, they have no clue what I’m talking about and they just sort of brush it off. But this is a huge work! It’s an evening of four choral symphonies, which also function as a quasi-opera. It’s Haydn’s most Mozartean work—certainly from a melodic standpoint—but it’s built upon Haydn’s rock-solid compositional prowess and its infused by his never-ending font of inventive creativity.


HANDEL Messiah

I have yet to get bored of this piece in spite of conducting it every year. Now that I know it quite well, it’s a rush to perform it. The piece has so much dramatic tension, and if you time everything just right, it spins out in an unbeatable progression. I continue to have fun at the harpsichord (see what I did there?) and my continuo partners and I seem to be finding more Vivaldian possibilities in our approach to the score with each passing year.

New Paths

BRAHMS Hungarian Dance No. 5
R. SCHUMANN Manfred Overture
C. SCHUMANN arr. WHITE Three Romances for Violin
BRAHMS Symphony No. 2

The idea here was to look at the prophesy from a music-historical lens: when Robert Schumann met the 20-year-old Johannes Brahms, he wrote a very intimidating article called “New Paths” in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung in which he hailed Brahms as the future of classical music. It kind of psyched Brahms out, but thanks to the persistent mentorship of Clara Schumann, he was able to fulfill this promise.


LASSUS Prophetiae sibyllarum
S. BRISTOW Winter Solstice [world premiere]
J. FRENCH Hear My Voice
J. S. BACH Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf
C. KREEK Psalm 137
S. ROSSI Al Naharot Bavel

Like so many choral programs, this concert features a wide variety of works, but the main event is Lassu’s Prophetiae sibyllarum, a cycle of twelve motets that are composed in a highly chromatic language reminiscent of Gesualdo. These pieces get written about all the time, but not so rarely performed. I’ve been wanting to perform Salamone Rossi for quite a while, and I’m also delighted to have another premiere by Harmonia’s collaborative / orchestral keyboard player Sheila Bristow.


BERNSTEIN Candide Overture
GERSHWIN Rhapsody in Blue
WHITE Cassandra [world premiere]

OK, this is obviously a super fun one, and it’ll be even more fun because my boy Joey is coming out to do the piano solo in the Gershwin. So what’s this Cassandra thing all about? Well, it’s going to be a big one. An opera-oratorio modeled (in some ways) on Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. I’m working with my cousin, a Latinist, on the libretto. This will probably end up being my single largest-scale single work.

And if you are inferring from the various verb tenses in those last few sentences that I haven’t finished writing it yet, you’d be correct!

The Ordering of Moses

COLERIDGE-TAYLOR La caprice de Nannette
DVORAK Largo from Symphony No. 9
R. NATHANIEL DETT The Ordering of Moses

This program has been brewing in my mind since my time as assistant conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony. Dett’s Moses, a major oratorio that combines Old Testament scripture with African American spirituals, was premiered by the CSO in 1937. The premiere was broadcast on the radio, and there’s a famous story that the radio station switched away from the concert mid-stream due to complaints from racist white listeners calling in.

To the best of my knowledge, that rumor has never been substantiated, but it’s interesting that it was still floating around Cincinnati when the orchestra revived the piece in 2014. I worked hard on that concert and I’ve been enamored of the piece ever since. I’m thrilled to finally be able to bring it to life, though once again, I won’t be conducting it, as I’ve invited my friend Marques L. A. Garrett to do the honors.

What Music Tells Me

There’s a new album out that I’d like to shill for, and you’ll never guess who’s a featured composer on it.

What Music Tells Me by the Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble

Of course, it’s my solemn duty to tell you that you should purchase a physical copy of the disc directly from the label, MSR Classics, but I’ll drop a few more links below:

The album is mostly arrangements for brass & organ of standard orchestral repertoire: Egmont Overture, “Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral,” the Brahms Haydn Variations, and Messaien’s Apparition de l’église éternelle to name a few. There’s one bit of church music (also in an arrangement), Healey Willan’s “How They So Softly Rest.“ And it will come as no surprise—given the title of the album—that Gustav Mahler is also represented on the disc, though not with his third symphony as you might expect, but with the final two movements of his second (!!) All the arrangements are by Craig Garner and I truly cannot praise him and his work highly enough. The man has wrought pure magic from these 7 or 8 instruments in a way that I scarcely could have thought possible.

My piece is the major outlier on the disc, not just for being the only work by a living composer, but for its sheer weirdness. I’d written a bunch of stuff for the Gargoyles before, most notably, a crowd pleaser called The Dwarf Planets (featured on their 2015 album Flourishes, Tales and Symphonies.) This new piece, Flood of Waters is something else altogether. In a lot of ways, it picks up from the gnarly opening of the last movement of The Dwarf Planets and extrapolates it to a further order of gnarlitude. It’s raucous, loud, dissonant, and perhaps even transgressive.

I was in Chicago in 2019 for the recording session, and let me tell you, it was a wild night. The group was positioned in the rear balcony of St. John Cantius Church, the echt conservative Latin rite monastery just off the Chicago blue line stop. The recording engineer—and I think I can get away with saying this now that it’s all said and done—was a cantankerous old guy with a big reputation and a short fuse. His stress levels were through the roof and he got very mad many, many times during the session.

In fairness to this guy a) he’s a multiple Grammy award winning producer, so I suppose he knew what he was doing and b) the set up for this session was absolutely insane. They had to drive a cherry picker into church sanctuary, like the thing that the phone company uses to lift workers up to the top of the pole, and they had bundles of wires cascading down the stairwell.

The thing that really threw this guy for a loop though, was how loud my piece was. Too loud, according to him. He suggested that I should make it softer and… what do you even say to that? It reminded me of the time in 2008 when I moved from Chicago to Bloomington, and the head of the moving crew offered me $300 not to move my piano.

In the end, he was able to adjust his levels sufficiently to capture the sound. But like… you gotta agree it’s kind of badass that I wrote something so loud that a Grammy-winning producer told me it was too loud, right? Maybe I’m in the wrong genre. Heavy Metal, here I come.

What’s wrong with my iPad?

I know that this question would be much better suited to Reddit than the landing page of my professional website, but what gives? I set up my iPad to film the conductor perspective at my recent concert of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, and about 30 seconds into the performance, the iPad switched to slo-mo!

In the end, I thought it looked kind of cool, so I posted it.

The even weirder thing is that it went back to regular mode for the third movement. I am truly flummoxed.

Luckily I was able to figure out how to speed up the footage, so it’s all good (though I think the sped-up version looks like a bit like a kinescope, but whatcha gonna do?)

Anyway, conducting Beethoven’s ninth: thrill of a lifetime, incredible privilege, hope to do it again immediately.