Review of the Album “The Sunflower Waltz” by Anne Trenning

February 27, 2016 by Admin

imageAlthough currently residing in Charlotte, North Carolina, exceptionally talented composer and pianist Anne Trenning grew up in Barrington, Illinois, a northwest suburb of Chicago. She began her musical career playing the organ at age seven, and among early influences on her musical identity, she includes not only the rich cultural landscape of the Chicagoland area, but also the values of her parents and her extended family. With Dutch roots, a diligent work ethic, and a staunch religious compass, her family instilled in Anne a strong appreciation for hard work, education, and faith.

At age twelve, Anne shifted her focus to playing the piano. Her father encouraged practicing and “a love of four-part harmony” by paying her a dollar for every hymn she learned to play from a Presbyterian hymnal passed down from her grandmother. “My entrepreneurial spirit insured that I learned to play most of the songs in that well-worn, treasured family collection,” she says with a grin.

Another critical influence on Anne was the excellent music programs at the schools she attended; both in terms of the variety of music oriented experiences provided, as well as the skill, dedication and compassion of her teachers. In particular, Anne identifies her piano teacher, Helen Velleuer, as having had a tremendous influence on her, both in her music and her personal life. Participation in church choir activities also left a strong impression on her.

Of course, like other musicians, Anne’s musical identity was also shaped by the popular music to which she was exposed as she grew up. She notes: “Like a lot of people, my earliest musical memories are listening to my parents’ record collection…..” Mahalia Jackson was a particular favorite, and from her Anne gained a genuine appreciation for Gospel music. Anne’s musical ear was also influenced by the popular singer-songwriters of the seventies: James Taylor, Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, Elton John, Dan Fogelberg, Bonnie Raitt, and groups such as Steely Dan, The Guess Who, and The Allman Brothers Band.

Also in the eighties, Anne discovered the new age music of George Winston, David Lanz, Suzanne Ciani, and the Windham Hill and Narada labels, which also opened new musical horizons for her. When she moved to the South to pursue her education at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, she also developed a greater appreciation for folk, Americana, Celtic, bluegrass, southern rock, and country. She states: “These roots oriented genres, while new to me, were part of the musical lexicon of this area. I fell in love with their melodic sensibilities and the “one foot firmly rooted in the past” relationships they explore.”

While at Converse College on a music scholarship, Anne earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Music and History, with a particular interest in composers Mendelssohn, Scarlatti, and Ravel. In fact, Anne notes that it is her classical music education that has most influenced the development and structure of the songs she writes. The “resolution to tonic” — the structural characteristic of a song that creates a sense of “tension” and then “resolution or completeness” in the mind of the listener — is “entwined in my songwriting so greatly, that try as I may, it is always my final landing position…”

And while other instruments, as well as vocal music, were critical parts of her musical experience, it was the piano that Anne always came back to as the medium through which she could most comfortably express her thoughts and emotions

After college, and after a few months traveling in Europe, Anne moved to North Carolina and soon began composing her own music.

“I didn’t even own a piano in the immediate years following my graduation from college, but after I purchased my first home, I inherited the family piano. After years of taking lessons, I suddenly found myself sitting at the piano without a set goal for my practicing. That’s when I began experimenting and creating my own music.”

Anne got her first big break when a demo tape she had made was heard by world renowned New Age pianist David Lanz. He liked her style and encouraged her to record an album. The result was her debut album titled “Suite Tea,” released in 1997, and produced by GRAMMY-nominated and DOVE Award-recipient Dave Moody. The title, Anne states, gives “a tongue-in-cheek nod to years of classical studies, and my whole-hearted embrace of the refreshing Southern tradition of sitting back and enjoying a cool glass of sweetened iced tea.”

In 2004, Anne released “All One World”. which was listed among the Top 10 on New Age Reporter’s Top 100 Airplay Chart for 2005, and received widespread acclaim.

Anne’s third album, “Watching for Rain,” an absolutely superb work, debuted at #3 on the Zone Music Reporter’s radio charts and rose to #2, remaining on the charts for 9 months during 2009. The CD was nominated for four ZMR Awards and was a finalist for “Best Instrumental Album – Piano” in 2009. It was also included in Michael Debbage’s “Top Twenty Recordings of 2009.

imageOn Anne’s previous albums, her piano efforts have typically been accompanied by highly talented supporting ensemble musicians. However, her most recent album, “The Sunflower Waltz,” is a purely “solo piano” work. In fact, part of the motivation for this album was to provide Anne with an opportunity for unhindered self-expression via the keyboard. It includes ten new compositions and outstanding solo piano re-imaginings of two pieces each from her three previous albums: “Suite Tea,” “All One World,” and “Watching For Rain.”

Reflecting Anne’s deep and longtime connection with nature, the theme unifying the music on “The Sunflower Waltz” embraces the vibrant and sturdy spirit of the sunflower.

“Adaptability, beauty, and determination are all characteristics of the sunflower. Sunflowers follow the direction of the sun where it leads, and offer a metaphorical optimism of strength in their powerful glory. Their resilience is unparalleled. Today, more so than ever, we must strive as this powerful flora to root ourselves and persevere.”

Crafted and recorded at Piano Haven studios in Sedona, Arizona, by Joe Bongiorno, a masterful pianist, composer, and recording engineer, the production quality is, of course, impeccable.

Additionally, all of the tracks are played by Anne on one of the world’s finest pianos, the Shigeru Kawai, which Anne calls “…simply a gift to all pianists, a hallmark of excellence personified within a keyboard……”

Put simply, the music on “The Sunflower Waltz” is exceptional. First and foremost, and in a manner similar to renowned musicians such as Terry Oldfield, Bill Leslie, and Fiona Joy, Anne’s compositions have “character” and “heart.” The music is mostly warm, upbeat, optimistic, positive, and most of all “sincere,” with strong, crisp, and memorable melodies. And despite being “solo piano” music, it is nonetheless so adeptly and creatively crafted, sophisticated, and varied in style and temperament that it can easily hold your attention for the entire length of the album without any need for accompaniment.

Moreover, Anne’s piano performances are quite powerful — reflecting a level of confidence, skill, expressivity, and simple grace and elegance in her touch on the keyboard that we find is rare among contemporary new age pianists.

As Anne relates: “I am particularly moved in life and music by the communication of emotion – the powerful impact of a kind word or gesture, the universal resonance of a smile, the conveyance of inclusiveness and acceptance within a melodic phrase….”

Finally, “The Sunflower Waltz” unabashedly reflects the varied musical influences on Anne that were described earlier. At times, the music evokes a sweet nostalgia — with hints of classical music, nineteenth century Americana, and mid-twentieth century pop and country. At other times there are obvious influences of Anne’s faith — in the form of music that would fit perfectly in a Sunday church service. And then at other times the music displays decidedly Appalachian culture infused Irish Celtic music qualities.

The album begins magnificently with a track titled “Max’s Birthday,” which is an upbeat, fast moving, energetic, bouncy, fun, cheerful, up-tempo, stylish, and optimistic work, with charming hints of childhood joy and appreciation for the gift that is life. It was inspired by the happy sounds of an eight year old neighbor’s birthday party, and it is our most favorite track on the album.

According to Anne, “This selection is a testament to the argument that time, however short, is invaluable. I was waiting for a student to arrive one afternoon and took advantage of the extra few minutes to play around at the keyboard. Outside my window I heard the joyful noise of a celebration for our young neighbor Max, who was having a birthday party. Two minutes later my student arrived and kindly announced that whatever I was playing was lovely. In that short moment, a song was born.”

The title track, which is also up-tempo, and certainly “waltz” like, shows a bit more of a classical influence, with just a hint of Americana, and outstanding creative nuance. With it’s flowing, energetic, and buoyant qualities, one is left with the unmistakable impression of a field of tall, sturdy, and beautiful sunflowers joyfully swaying and dancing in a steady breeze on a sunlit day.

In contrast, “Claire Of My Heart,” is a tad slower, with a more straightforward solo piano style, a catchy melody, and as the title suggests, Irish Celtic music influences. But it also at times we hear a slight hint of “music box” music. Nicely done!

imageAnother of our favorite tracks on the album is “Just Fly.” With its implied theme of “just being patient and having faith that things will turn out okay,” it provides a compelling example of how Anne’s solo piano music is so superbly crafted that it is a pure joy to hear. This track is more up-tempo, positive, upbeat, and wonderfully stylish, with a clever and distinctive melody, and a magnificent lyrical quality. And throughout the song, one can easily hear the refrain “just fly,” as if someone was actually singing those words – but , of course, THERE IS NO ONE SINGING! It is simply a testament to Anne’s brilliant ability to express an idea and mood through the careful crafting of her music.

The next track,”Fade To Blue,” which is also one of our particular favorites, again manifests a powerful, creative, and memorable melody, but this time with much more down tempo, gentle, graceful, delicate, tender, reflective, plaintive, and haunting qualities. In fact, it is probably the most reflective and emotional track on the album. It is also just an incredibly beautiful song.

“Letting Go,” as the title suggests, is decidedly more up-tempo, with a bight, energetic, carefree, fun, and uplifting melody. It is also a good example, as is “Just Fly,” of how Anne’s music often has narrative qualities–little stories without words.

“Cowgirl Daydream” is a much more down tempo, contemplative, country music infused, and romantic “slow dance,” with very pronounced “waltz like” qualities – but the type of slow, swaying waltz you might hear at an old-time country or Old West suaree, square dance, or “barn dance.” It clearly reflects Anne’s passion for Americana and will most likely bring a smile to your face.

The next two tracks go in a very different direction and are reflective of Anne’s profound faith. In addition to sharing a religious theme, both have clear “church music” influences. While listening to “In The Gloaming Light,” which is a bit slower, more sedate, more reflective, with a hint of country music melancholy, and a strong melody, one can easily envision hearing this song being played on a church organ. In fact, on the inside of the CD cover there is a quote that could perhaps serve as an alternate title for this track — “In the gloaming light you can see the face of God.” Similarly, “Sing To The Lord,” features another strong melody, but with a less energetic style, and an undercurrent of joy and praise. And given the title, and the distinct lyrical and prayer like qualities of the music, this track refects just a hint of “church choir.”

Another of our favorites, “Backyard Dreamer,” is a very contemplative, dreamy, relaxing, and at times wistful track, with a much much slower tempo. One can easily envision silently lounging in a backyard hammock, on a bright, sunny, Sunday afternoon, and just daydreaming, while sipping on a Mint Julep or a glass of lemonade.

As Anne notes, “All artists are dreamers. For me, dreams becomes music, and within, there is beauty to behold. So often our best thoughts manifest themselves in the dreamiest way.”

“Where Rivers Run” and “Days Gone By,” both originally from the “Suite Tea” album, are slow, reflective, and at times pensive, but yet subtly cheerful, positive, and optimistic. With their strong and memorable melodies, and occasional clever playfulness, they are again both good examples of the subtle narrative qualities of Anne’s music. And “Days Gone By” is also quite simply an exquisite work that leaves you wanting more.

The next three songs are also works from Anne’s previous albums that have been recast brilliantly as fairly straightforward solo piano works, but with somewhat different styles. “Ben’s Song,” originally from “All One World,” is somewhat down tempo, beautiful, and reflective, with a powerful melody and at times definite lyrical and narrative qualities. “How Fair My Love,” on the other hand, also from “All One World,” has more obvious Irish Celtic music influences, but also at times shows hints of classical music — 18th century dance music in particular — or music you might hear coming from a harpsichord. “The Welcome Song,” originally from the “Watching For Rain” album, is in some ways similar to “Ben’s Song,” with a strong, memorable melody, an upbeat, warm, loving, and positive spirit, and magnificent emotional expressivity. It is also one of our most favorite tracks.

The album ends perfectly with Anne’s faith inspired, beautiful, tender, peaceful, contemplative, and sincere “A Prayer For The World.” Also from “Watching For Rain,” it is a slower, more dramatic, and masterfully crafted work that plaintively calls for us to heed the message of concern, love, and hope that Anne desperately and genuinely wants to convey.

“This is my prayer for humanity. When things seem most disheartening, let music fill your heart with hope, and with this profound gesture, may hope help you see your way forward. May you persevere as a sunflower in all its radiant glory.”

We very highly recommend “The Sunflower Waltz.”

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