By Marilyn Lester . . .

In 1991, musical theater composer-lyricist, Maury Yeston was commissioned to write a piece for the centennial celebration of Carnegie Hall. The result was a song cycle, entitled December Songs, performed at its debut and recorded by Andrea Marcovicci. Now, as the centerpiece of Renee Katz’s new CD, Winter Awakenings, this song cycle breathes life again via the spirit of the intensely poetic Katz. Accompanied by a few Songbook standards, the CD in toto is a beautiful expression of hope—of the birth of Spring after the desolation of Winter—sung with heartfelt musical elegance.

December Songs had been on Katz’s radar for some time, but came to the fore during these pandemic times. Yeston’s approach was to retell Franz Schubert’s Winterreise (translated from German as Winter Journey), but through the lens of a woman on a lonely walk through Central Park in winter, reflecting on a lost love. Each of the ten parts represents a genre representative of the many styles of music heard on the Carnegie Hall stage. By the end of the cycle, a broken heart is transformed, with hope awakened and healing begun.

It’s no wonder that the deep thinker that is Katz would equate December Songs to the journey being made by those affected by a pandemic still in progress—especially in its message of strength, hope and moving beyond. In Winter Awakenings, Katz’s passion is unmistakeable—and as she herself has stated, the song cycle has many connections to her own life and journey. Thus, the storytelling is delivered on an authentic level, voiced through her clear soprano, as she handles the various genres of December Songs with ease.

Bookending the cycle are two American Songbook standards. Winter Awakenings open with “Deep Purple,” composed in 1934 for piano by Peter De Rose. In 1939 Mitchell Parrish added the lyric, which also speaks to lost love: “Though you’re gone, your love lives on when moonlight beams…” Following the song cycle is “Winter Was Warm” (Jule Styne, Bob Merrill) from the 1962 television special “Mr Magoo’s Christmas Carol.” It too speaks to loss and the ability to return to an earlier, happier period though memory and dreams. Then there is a change of tone and mood, a jump into a happy present with “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” (Irving Berlin), whose title says it all: despite the harshness of a winter storm, love is warmth. As a bonus track, Noël Coward’s “Come the Wild, Wild Weather” offers a positive affirmation that through all seasons, “Wherever we chance to go we shall always be friends.”

Winter Awakenings is a beautifully thought out and realized work, sung exquisitely and sensitively by Katz. This gifted singer needs no more to carry the album than the piano artistry of John M. Cook, whose perfect arrangements form a secure platform from which she dispenses the wisdom of her choices. Alon Bisk provided additional support with his sensitive cello playing—and what better way to underscore the unfolding of Winter Awakenings than with this instrument of haunting depth.

Winter Awakenings is available for purchase on Amazon and on most streaming platforms.