Album: Christmas Beyond
Artist: Steven C
For many artists who record their albums in studios, the ideal is to have the space be as neutral as possible. Then later, ambiance is added electronically through reverb and other effects. For his Christmas Beyond album, multi-platinum composer and pianist Steven C (a.k.a. Steven C. Anderson) wanted the space to be as much a part of the recording as the instruments. To fulfill this desire, Steven was granted permission to record this project in the iconic 100-year-old Cathedral of Saint Paul in Minnesota. As he shares: “While putting together the music, it became apparent through my muse that to capture the timeless sacredness I wished to embody and create, it needed to be done in a reverent and sacred place. Through her vision, the Cathedral of Saint Paul was the place. It has been a highlight of my career to be able to record there, and I can’t wait ot perform these songs live for an audience.”
And quite a distinctive career he has had. For those who may not be familiar, I will quote a brief excerpt from a feature article I wrote about Steven’s previous Past To Presence album – a 3 disc retrospective of his recording work: “Steven C has had a successful career in the music business for a quarter of a century, selling over 2 million records as well as performing and recording with a host of incredible musicians, including The London Symphony Strings at the famed Abbey Road Studios, Mannheim Steamroller, and others. Along with fellow artists such as Tori Amos and Victor Borge, he is also a proud endorser of the illustrious Bosendorfer pianos, which are considered among the finest in the world.” Steven’s music has been heard on the airwaves of NBC’s The Today Show, PBS, Pandora, Oprah, Music Choice, and the Discovery Channel. Readers interested in learning more about Steven’s musical background are encouraged to check out that feature article here on Music and Media Focus.
Steven is by nature a deeply spiritual person, and the experience of playing music in that sacred space went “beyond” just recording an album. In his words: “The hours spent sitting inside the Cathedral at my Bosendorfer piano were mesmerizing. I felt a rainbow of emotions and it became my personal catharsis. To hear, feel, and play with the Cathedral’s deep natural acoustics left me speechless. The sound from the space became another instrument and creative partner. And as the music came out of me, often not even as I had rehearsed, the joining of sound was breathtaking. It resonated through me in a way I’ve never experienced before.”
Christmas Beyond consists of an intriguing blend of 13 classically arranged pieces that include well known traditional holiday songs as well as a number of songs and carols that may not be as familiar, all rendered from Steven’s heartfelt musical perspective. Some of the songs are solo piano renditions, while others include orchestration. Steven had the good fortune to collaborate with internationally–known arranger Adi Yeshaya, who has worked with world- class artists such as Whitney Houston and Prince, among others.
The desire to create a special Christmas album of this magnitude is something Steven has wanted to do for a long time, but the timing was not right… until now. Here Steven discusses some of his thoughts and motivations about this music: “As much of this music was created centuries ago, I am in awe of how it transcends time. It is truly an amazing confirmation of the universal language of music, especially through the Christmas message. I’ve also included music to go beyond the Christmas season…to evoke the timeless magic that embraces winter, to move one closer to their soul, to feel the peace, joy, and love of the Christmas message beyond the Christmas season. To in essence, feel the reverence of Life in our lives and lives beyond.”
As the album opens with “The Angel Gabriel,” the soft tinkling of single notes in the upper registers evokes an image of snowflakes falling gracefully to the earth. As the melody blossoms, a sense of quiet majesty is embodied in the song. Following another solo piano piece, a traditional 15th century French carol entitled “Sing We Now Of Christmas,” we come to a richly orchestrated version of “Still, Still, Still, which was written to describe the peace of the infant Jesus and his mother. The elaborate arrangement by Adi Yeshaya elevates this stunningly beautiful composition to the highest level.
The next three songs are not traditional Christmas carols but are part of what Steven calls “A Winters Magic Medley.” An interesting addition to the middle tune, “In The Bleak Midwinter,” is the Cathedral’s pipe organ played by Lawrence Lawyer, which is mixed subtly into Adi’s lovely string arrangement. The orchestration on this and other songs is performed by STRINGenius, who are contracted instrumentalists from the Minnesota Opera and Minnesota Orchestra, and include a number of fine players on flutes, brass, woodwinds, and of course, strings.
After the medley, a Polish carol called “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly” is performed on solo piano. I’m not familiar with the song but I suspect that some of the subtle jazz inflections are Steven putting his own spin on it. As Steven mentioned in our interview, artists such as George Winston, Liz Story, and David Lanz have been a big influence. Additionally he adds: “ I also like to infuse Classical and jazz into my music.” And speaking of putting his own spin on a song, Steven has taken artistic license on “Carol Of The Birds And Bells” and his more impressionistic version is quite distinctive. One of the most well known songs is “Little Drummer Boy,” which Steven played here as a spontaneous improvisation. Listening to this solo piano piece with headphones, I was able to get a sense of the ambiance and resonance of the Cathedral in the way the notes sustained and filled the air.
In what I might call a “re-imagining” Steven has created an interesting rendition of the classic “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear,” and re-titled it “Beyond A Midnight Clear,” in keeping with the theme of the album’s Christmas Beyond title. It is quite lovely and demonstrates the range of Steven’s creative vision. Another example of this is on a piece entitled “Ave Thanksgiving,” which draws inspiration from both “Ave Maria,” written in the 15th century by Giulio Caccini and a song by George Winston called “Thanksgiving,” written in 1982. According to Steven: “It felt like George Winston and Caccini wrote the same song ‘vibe’ many years apart.” Also combining influences is “Angels Heard – Do You Hear? I Heard.” Performed as a piano and cello duet, it integrates elements of “Angels We Have Heard On High” and “Do You Hear What I Hear.” This song was one of my favorites on the album and is pure magic. The album draws to a close with a touching composition called “The Road Home,” which was included out of respect for the late composer Stephen Paulus, who was an influence on Steven and who passed away while this album was being recorded. This deeply moving tribute is of particular significance to Steven on a personal level, which he talks about in the liner notes, and makes for an emotionally evocative conclusion to this lovely album.
I can only imagine what it was like for Steven to hear the sound from his fingers on the keys expand out into the vastness of the Cathedral space. I found that listening with headphones enhanced my appreciation of that aspect compared to listening on speakers. It gave more of a sense of being there. But I imagine that it is more than just the sound waves that are being picked up on the recording. Steven wanted the space to be a part of the music. I can’t help feeling on some level that in addition to the physical sound, the spiritual energy the space is imbued with after a century of devotion and prayer is part of the listening experience as well. Steven has certainly fulfilled his long-standing desire to create a Christmas album in grand fashion. I’ll leave the final words to him to share his thoughts and dreams about this music: “This recording of old world Christmas music in the acoustically beautiful and sacred space of the Cathedral was a gift of a lifetime for me to embody. The profoundness, as I face myself, will not be left within the walls of the Cathedral. I will carry it with me forever. It is my hope that this music goes well beyond my time.
This video of a song featured on Christmas Beyond is from a previous release – new video coming soon…