By Marilyn Lester . . .
To celebrate the release of her magnificent undertaking, the new album, Winter Awakenings, Renee Katz, brought the music to Pangea with the kind of magic that can only be realized live. (See the review of the Winter Awakenings CD elsewhere in Theater Pizzazz.) Additionally, during the evening, Katz, a published poet, read her lovely work, A Path Calls, which appears on the CD’s liner notes.
Although she’d been long-contemplating this project—a presentation of Maury Yeston’s 10-song cycle, December Songs—it was the crisis of our ongoing pandemic that gave her the impetus to bring it to fruition. By definition, a song cycle is a group of individually complete songs performed in a sequence and which, as a unit, convey an overarching story. December Songs was conceived as the portrait of a brokenhearted woman taking a lonely walk through Central Park. From the pain of love lost, she ends at a place of hope, redemption and healing, a message Katz wanted to declare for all in these troubled times. And she does it with immense heart and sensitivity, plus an astounding level of authenticity, for she has deeply known tragedy and recoupment in her own life.
Yeston wrote December Songs as a commemoration of the centenary of Carnegie Hall. Thus, the genres of each of the ten songs in the cycle vary, reflecting the many styles of music heard in the Hall over the years. Katz’s first number “December Snow” is a hymn-like song with medieval overtones. It suited her well in its air of romanticism. The next, an anguished madrigal, “Where Are You Now?” allowed Katz to demonstrate perfect phrasing and emotional commitment. Many of the following songs in the cycle had a contemporary musical theater feel, leading up to the country-style ballad a la Joni Mitchell in “By the River.” Katz’ vocal range was on display with a pseudo Victorian parlor song, “I Had a Dream About You,” with her lower range transitioning smoothly to her natural clear, pure soprano, and vice versa.
Katz’ opener, however, was the American Songbook standard, “Deep Purple” (Peter De Rose, Mitchell Parrish). Capping the song cycle was “Winter Was Warm” (Jule Styne, Bob Merrill) from the 1962 television special “Mr Magoo’s Christmas Carol.” Both speak to dreams as a way to access a lost love. Toward the end of the concert, Katz leapt into a happy present with the cheerful “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” (Irving Berlin), sung with controlled belting. There were bonus songs in the set, including a wonderfully esoteric choice, which ideally suited her: “Someday” (Alan Mencken, Stephen Schwartz) from Walt Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Winter Awakenings was flawlessly arranged by pianist-music director John M. Cook. Always skilled at his craft, he was on his A-game during the evening, playing each song and genre with lush perfection, especially on a few jazzy uptempo numbers. With the wise addition of the inherently haunting cello, Alon Bisk both bowed and played pizzicato with dextrous prowess. The CD celebration show of Winter Awakenings was ably co-directed by Peter Schlosser and Ira Siff.