Using subtle fragments of some western culture’s most beloved holiday tunes, “Reflections” offers its listeners a novel and refreshing way to experience the songs of the season. Arranged and performed by pianist and composer Stephen Wallack, these melodies are so familiar to most of us that hearing just the smallest fragments conjures a plethora of memories and feelings. While these pieces don’t demand our undivided attention, careful listening reveals them to be charming, imaginative and quite captivating.
A native of Minneapolis, Minnesota, Wallack began taking piano lessons at the age of five. Performance anxiety kept him from continuing formal lessons for long – just long enough for him to realize that he had an ear for music and could imitate just about anything he heard. Happily, he discovered the album “December” by George Winston when he was 12; this turned out to be a major turning point for him in his musical development as it led him to begin composing. “I connected with George Winston’s style of music so much when I was young,” Wallack explains, “that writing just became a very natural next step for me.” Having listened to “December” countless times myself, I could definitely hear George Winston’s influence on the music of Stephen Wallack.
Like all the songs on the album, the first track, “Deck the Halls,” features a prominent bass and frequent repetition of musical patterns. The opening is improvisational; suspense builds, and then the familiar carol begins. Yet it isn’t altogether familiar with its syncopated rhythm, open intervals, and slip notes, and the effect is one of pure joy! “Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer” is lighthearted and filled with anticipation, like the hearts of children on Christmas Eve; “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” is pulsing and energetic. The mood shifts with “We Three Kings”; this rendition is dark and mysterious and explores the full range of the piano keyboard. “Away in a Manger” was not the gentle lullaby I expected; it was more upbeat, perhaps an expression the wonder and joy experienced by those who were present at the time of the birth of the Christ Child. “Jingle Bells,” on the other hand, was introspective and thoughtful. A bit of musical storytelling, “Frosty the Snowman” weaves the tale of the snowman come to life. The pulse-quickening “Joy to the World,” literally throbs with the joy of the season and is my personal favorite of all the pieces on the album. “O Christmas Tree” is nostalgic and sentimental and left me feeling warm and cozy as an evening in front of a fireplace. “Silent Night” brings this musical journey to a peaceful conclusion, perfectly capturing the stillness of a winter evening.
“Reflections” would make a lovely addition to any instrumental music lover’s holiday collection. Highly recommended!
Pianist and composer Stephen Wallack’s combination of formal and exploratory learning results in music that defies stereotypes. His October 2020 release “Stories,” the natural successor to his debut album, “Chapters,” is a set of ten pieces whose musical elements synchronize to sonically describe specific people who have impacted his life. Using the metaphorical imagery of a 24-hour day, Wallack allows his listeners to experience this montage of memories.
The album begins with “Sunrise,” that daily event that is all too easy to take for granted. The opening is dark, with lots of bass and open intervals; soon, however, we hear splashes of sound in the upper register, like the first rays of sunlight sparkling over the horizon. Utilizing the full range of the keyboard, Wallack paints a majestic picture of the beginning of a new day. Next comes “Rain,” a lively joy-filled piece that put me in mind of a toddler in bright yellow boots splashing through puddles. The next track, “Children,” starts peacefully, as a waltz, but the mood shifts abruptly about halfway through, playfully channeling the ebullience and exhilaration of a child at play, before ending gently. The Latin word “excelsior” means “ever upwards” or “even higher” and the next piece, which bears this title, does just that, its regal and majestic opening followed by melody, dynamics and tempo that climb to a brilliant climax, evoking both zeal and yearning. “The Dancer” spins furiously round and round, like a ballerina executing a fantastical pirouette, with reflective pauses sprinkled throughout before the frenzy resumes.
“My Love” is a sweet romance, laced with tenderness and passion; in a similar vein, “Cousins” is permeated with devotion and affection, but with lively twists and turns. “Eight” is imbued with a driving, percussive energy throughout, then ends poignantly and lightly. Like an impressionist painting, “Monet” is rich with layers of texture, color and light. “Goodnight” winds down slowly, bringing the album to a pleasant and peaceful conclusion.
“Stories” is a refreshing and compelling musical experience, and Stephen Wallack is fast becoming one of my favorite contemporary solo piano artists. Very highly recommended!