‘Going Into the Woods’: Part Two: Musical Director Dennis M. Layendecker by Joel Markowitz

Dennis Layendecker, Director, School of Music. Photo by Alexis Glenn/Creative Services/George Mason University.

Dr. Dennis M. Layendecker, director of the School of Music and University Heritage Chair of Music, will conduct the Mason Symphony Orchestra for George Mason University’s Department of Theater and School of Music’s collaborative production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods .

Joel: Please tell us about The School of Music at George Mason University and your position. How long have you been at George Mason University?

Dr. Layendecker: I am at the beginning of my 4th year at George Mason University and we were designated a School of Music in May 2009.

How many performances will The School of Music offer this year?

The School of Music is involved in over 400 events each academic year from symphony orchestra and wind symphony to opera and choral performances to jazz and athletic bands to student recitals and master classes. We typically produce up to 30 ticketed performances per year and 80 concerts overall.

Why did you select and want to conduct and musical direct Into the Woods?

We chose Into the Woods in part because it offered a small enough, workable cast for this initial venture together, between the School of Music and Department of Theater. It allows a smaller orchestra compared to other productions, which is more manageable for now.

It is also the 200th anniversary of the Grimm Fairy Tales. Because the tales originated in Germany, Into the Woods also fits into our month-long German theme, think Transatlantic.

How would you describe Stephen Sondheim’s score for Into the Woods?

It is multi-layered, complex, contrapuntal, deeply connected to the tone of the drama, almost Wagnerian in its motific association with various characters, containing multiple linkages and tie-ins with other characters. The music and drama are deeply integrated and cyclic. It is a masterpiece of formal architecture.

How many musicians will be playing this score in the GMU production?

There will be 17 musicians.

Did you have to create new orchestrations for the large group of musicians for this production or are you using musical arrangements that have already been created by Jonathan Tunick?

We are playing the original score, but there is some leeway with the sound effects so the students are having great fun with those.

What instruments comprise the 22 musicians in the orchestra?

There are 17 musicians: 1 flute, 1 clarinet, 1 bassoon, 2 horns, 1 trumpet, 3 percussionists, 1 pianist, 1 synthesizer, 2 violins, 1 cello, 2 violas, and 1 bass.

The ‘Into the Woods’ cast rehearses. From left, Rafael Medina, Alexandra Pool, Kyle Imperatore and Kate Merryman. Photo by Stan Engebretson

What are some of the challenges in preparing your musicians to play Sondheim’ score?

The score is highly complex, even Stravinsky-esque, rhythmically and harmonically complex. It is transparent, offering very little room for unnoticed error. The timing with the drama is very challenging with all the sound effects in the score from birds chirping to cows mooing to magic beans.

What is the rehearsal schedule like?

The orchestra has been rehearsing separately from the cast once a week for 1 ¼ hours at a time up until production week. We have a sitz probe a week before production week and two dress rehearsals during the production week prior to the performances. The cast has been rehearsing six days a week since the beginning of September.

The School of Music is collaborating with the Department of Theater on this production. What has that experience been like? Have you worked with Ken and his department before?

We discover the extraordinary teaching, directing and creative talents of our faculty and staff colleagues in the Department of Theater. They are exceptional. Furthermore and in particular, our students from the School of Music who are participating are offered a wonderful learning opportunity working with truly professional theater direction provided by Professor Ken Elston.

In addition, we look forward to many more co-productions. The lessons learned in developing this project will prove essential as we move forward to define our mutual rules of engagement in collaborating in the Musical Theater Certificate at Mason.

What have been some of the challenges and pleasant surprises of working together?

The challenges have been in coordinating hours, the logistics, and keeping up with our responsibilities as directors of the respective enterprises. The pleasant aspect is that we work well together and match well in an artistic complement. It’s been great.

How have the students reacted to the joint venture?

In seeing the exchange between the music and theater students, they help each other with any shortfalls and bring their strengths to each other and raise the level of the performances. This is beyond positive. This one merits “four Wows.”

What is your favorite song in the score and why?

I have two. The first is “No More,” sung by the Baker toward the end of the musical. It has to do with men growing up. The second is sung by the witch, “Children Will Listen.” It contains the whole moral of the story.

What do you want audiences to take with them after they have seen Into the Woods?

I want them to enjoy the production for all its merit, but also to think of Mason when they want musical entertainment. We have many music and theater events open to the public throughout each semester. We hope it will also get more students to consider Mason, especially with the establishment of a certificate program in Musical Theater integrated with a Bachelor of Art in Music or a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theater.

Into the Woods plays at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts Concert Hall – located on the Fairfax campus of George Mason University at the intersection of Braddock Road and Route 123, in Fairfax, VA. Performances are on Friday, October 26, 2012 at 8 p.m., Saturday, October 27, 2012 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and on Sunday, October 28, 2012 at 4 p.m. For tickets, purchase your tickets online. Here are directions.

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