Piano Addict Blog - Feature
November 20, 2017
Meet pianist Charles Szczepanek– performer, recording artist, artistic director, composer, church musician, and producer. You have probably watched his awesome Star Trek and other transcriptions on YouTube. As many hats as he wears, I’m very grateful he took the time to do this interview. We chatted via email about his musical growing up, creating color and depth acoustically, his Mom, a hobby that turned into a company, and more.
I asked Charles if he is ever surprised to find himself wearing such an assortment of hats and he said, “As a person who stays engaged with life, is always wanting to learn about new things, and is always looking forward to the next project, it’s understandable that a slow and steady evolution would lead to where I am today.”
Please tell us a bit about your musical growing up. Have you always improvised and composed?
Growing up, there was never much classical music played in my household. When I finished my practicing, I gravitated toward playing the piano part for pop music by the Beatles, Elton John, Billy Joel and others.
One day my mother said, “Can’t you make it sound a little more like the song?” She pointed out the piano part didn’t include the melody, an important component in making a song recognizable! I said something indignant like, “But it’s on another line; I can’t read three lines!” With a little more coaxing, she got me reading the three lines together and was happy.
That exploration of what was beyond the piano part had lasting effects. I started looking at the guitar chords, learning how to approximate those sounds on the keyboard and add it to the vocal and piano lines. I tried to fill-in textures and notes missing from the published arrangement. By the time I started high school, I was well aware that published pop music transcriptions were approximations at best. I was also keenly aware that music wasn’t the ink on the page; it was the sounds we hear in the air around us.
My mother’s simple question opened the door to arranging, which in turn led to discoveries in composition and improvisation. I was writing original music by the time I was 10, some inspired by pop music and some inspired by classical music.
During my undergraduate studies, I had the fortune of working closely with a living composer, Paul Aurandt, on one of his large, romantic works. Those coachings solidified what I had discovered about pop music and helped apply those concepts to classical. Mainly: the notes on the page are at best an approximation of the music any composer intends.
Gaining a glimpse of the composer’s mind has been incredibly insightful for my interpretations and understanding of the classical repertoire. During a lesson in my undergraduate studies a teacher remarked, “You play the piece as if you wrote it.” I can’t think of a better compliment!
Who were and are your greatest mentors? Why?
From ages 12 to 17 I studied with Dr. Daniel Paul Horn at the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music and from 18 to 23 I studied with Professor Robert Hamilton at Arizona State University. Dr. Horn showed me that the study of music is a lifelong endeavor. You can enjoy what you’ve accomplished, but the growing process never ceases. Professor Hamilton instilled in me a great attention to detail. I remember working with him on a Mozart sonata. We spent 45 minutes discovering every conceivable way of playing the first bar, not moving further until every option was found!
Paul Aurandt, better known as Paul Harvey Jr., writer and creator of The Rest of the Story radio show, has become a friend. When we first met, he described my playing as if I were looking through a thin piece of paper behind which was my desired musical outcome. ”Why are you putting the paper there?” he asked. “Tear through it! “ More broadly, he made me believe in my playing and interpretations more than anyone. He reminds me to trust my intuition and go for it.
Please talk about your newest album, Keys to the Cinema.
I developed the concept for Keys to the Cinema in late 2013, after hearing John Williams conduct the Phoenix Symphony. The evening was magical because of the enthusiastic reactions of the audience. Each piece was known and loved.
After letting the concept simmer, I began arranging the music in early 2016. All of my arrangements are composed by ear, without studying the written orchestral score. Liszt was a master transcriber of large scores, and his style of arranging is a strong influence in how I work and think about orchestral colors on the piano.
Your transcriptions are great fun for the listener. How do you achieve such a balance between a broad range of pianistic sound and going way over the top?
Today’s classical crossover world features a lot of musicians who rely on layering in the studio or live performance with a loop pedal to achieve build and dynamic contrast in their music. At the other extreme are musicians who squeeze as many notes as possible into a bar, and out of their fingers, at the detriment of musicality and line. I might one day experiment with layering sounds in the studio, but I’ll never write difficult passages for their own sake.
When I’m writing a technically challenging passage I need to give myself some musical reasons why it’s important. If “it sounds cool” is the only thing I come up with, the idea is scrapped. On Keys to the Cinema, my overarching intention was to create piano transcriptions that come as close as possible to recreating the color, depth, and dynamic of the original orchestration. I write pianistic flourishes when they aid in conveying those messages. That helps me give priority to the ups and downs of emotion the music generates, which translates into balance.
Do you have a favorite transcription(s)? How did it (they) come about?
From purely a technical point of view, I’m most proud of the Suite from Star Trek. It pushes the limit of human hands and fingers but always for the sake of creating colors and textures that represent the orchestration. The first movement is full of measures that need extreme treatment to achieve their impact. There are 32nd notes, and faster, right hand arpeggios that swell to recreate simple string orchestra writing. There are bars where the right hand is asked to play eighth notes that skip two octaves: the lower octave representing the strings, the upper octave representing bells, and so each needs different articulations. In another section, both hands work together playing very fast ascending octave triplets. The harmonies outlined represent the strings and horns while the rhythms represent a persistent and militaristic snare drum.
Musically, the Theme from Schindler’s List and my medley of Pure Imagination/Somewhere Over the Rainbow are my favorites. The form of Schindler’s List is AABA. With three A sections, the difficulty in arranging was making them different enough without losing sight of the emotions the film evokes. Pure Imaginationfeatures a lot of original writing. For example, the opening statement and the transition into Somewhere Over the Rainbow is mine but is highly influenced by the shape and rhythms within the original composition.
How do you manage the many demands of being a pianist, collaborator, arranger, artistic director, producer, and more?
Apple Calendar is my close friend. Wearing so many hats keeps me in a fresh place as I approach my different work. I dedicate large blocks of time toward one endeavor at a time, but not so much that any become mundane. Many days I’ll spend a morning tackling one type of work, an afternoon tackling another, and an evening tackling a third. The following day, I probably won’t have time to revisit any of those three areas because there will be two or three different ones that need attention.
What drew you into production and engineering?
Initially it was just a hobby. I recorded two unreleased albums of classical music when I was in my teens, and I also recorded songs for friends. Upon entering college, I had an awful experience working with a “professional” studio. I spent hours sitting at the piano, waiting for the engineer to figure out what he was doing before we could move on to the next take.
Within a week, I decided to start my own production company, Winding Road Studios. I enjoy producing the most. On classical music, it can entail reading the score along with the performer or ensemble and helping coach them through the recording: Is their intention coming through the microphones, where you can’t see their body language? If they are nervous, how can I calm them? When they are tired, how can I encourage them to perform a fresh and vibrant take? With pop music, producing can be as much as being a co-songwriter, taking equal responsibility for lyric, melody and harmony decisions, as well as the creation of textures to support the song.
You are a person who integrates their religious beliefs wholly into everything that you do and you don’t mind discussing it either. Of course, many musicians have done the same, Bach, Liszt, and Hough to name a few. In literature, authors have described music as Rite 3 and listed among the saints such people such as Saint Sebastian and Saint Ludwig. Would you talk a bit about this in regard to your musical life?
Some of the most musically fulfilling moments of my life have been at Mass or during prayer services: times when I can really sense how people are being moved in their thoughts and in their prayer by what I’m playing. There are few things in the world that can bring us to tears without our expecting it, and music is one of them. Music rides the currents of spirit in the air around us and can enter our bodies and minds through our ears, much like air enters and enlivens us when we breathe.
In that sense, I view my job as a musician as important to society. If I’m responsible for generating these movements of air that come in sync with the spirit and have tremendous power to affect others, I want every moment of my performance, be it hymn, sonata or my own arrangement, to be fully inspired, well crafted and expertly executed.
Musicians are doctors for the soul. We can help heal emotional pain and suffering around us, help others overcome challenges, give others inspiration to keep going, and provide an outlet of communication between the human and the divine. But above all, we must remember it is not us human musicians generating that healing or inspiration. We are simply one of the conduits through which God can speak and influence the world. Our music carries the Spirit’s message, a message that is different for every person receiving it.
Tell us about Arts at Ascension and those who benefit from it.
I founded the Arts at Ascension concert series to bring the highest level of classical artistry to the Fountain Hills and north Scottsdale community, but I also wanted to go further. Music is performed to make us feel, to make us connect with one another, to heal emotional wounds, to inspire us, to give us joy, to help us reflect.
While a live concert can provide for those needs of the people in attendance, it can also do more. Through ticket sales and sponsorships, Arts at Ascension raises funds for music education at St. Matthew School in inner-city Phoenix. Many studies show that music education benefits brain development, has a strong correlation with better testing abilities, improves verbal communication skills and cognitive ability, especially in math, and increases self-discipline. But so often, music education is the last area to receive academic funding and the first to be cut. Arts at Ascension has raised over $50,000 in four years to help provide music education to young people at St. Matthew’s.
What is next for you?
A few more videos featuring music from Keys to the Cinema are in production or preproduction. I’m expecting to release a video of Pure Imagination/Somewhere Over the Rainbow in January 2018. The Theme from Schindler’s List should be released by April 2018.
I’m already looking forward to my next album project. I’m considering going back to the style of my Christmas album, Winter Day Dreaming and recording an album of mostly original improvisations, this time in a lullaby style. Think “Calm Music to Study By” or “Piano Relaxation.”
I’m also working on the debut album for my new trio, Vocelliano. The trio is piano, cello and soprano, and our first album is original arrangements of hymns, plus two original compositions, in a contemporary classical-crossover style. We are hoping to release that album in time for our performance at Arts at Ascension on Jan. 12, 2018.
Voyage Phoenix Magazine
November 2, 2017
Today we’d like to introduce you to Charles Szczepanek.
Thanks for sharing your story with us Charles. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
I grew up in the Chicago suburbs. When I was about 12 years old, a fortunate meeting with a local music teacher led to appointments and auditions for pre-college music programs at both Northwestern University and the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music. From age 12 through 17, I studied music at the Wheaton College Conservatory with Dr. Daniel Paul Horn alongside his undergraduates in the program. I was regularly invited to be a part of “studio class,” and many weekdays you could find me driving (or being driven) from high school to the college across town either for lessons, class, or just practice time.
Those 5 years were highly formative, at least as much so as my collegiate and graduate life. I was regularly thrown into circumstances where I was not only challenged musically by students with many more years of study, but I also had to quickly adapt in social situations with people 4 to 6 years older than I and in a very different place in their life. During this same time, I developed an interest in technology and especially in audio recording. My last year attending high school at Benet Academy, I was appointed director of the volunteer Mass Choir. I’d consider that my first management position. The attention of over 100 singers needed to be captivated by my presence and words. There were plentiful opportunities to learn planning, group communication skills, various musical skills, and how to improvise when things didn’t go as planned in front of a live audience of over 1,000.
After taking many successful college auditions, I moved to the Phoenix area in 2005 to pursue a Bachelor’s Degree in classical piano performance from Arizona State University. During my first year of college, it became apparent that the music students had few options when it came to hiring an affordable studio or engineer to make a high quality recording… and students needed new recordings all the time: for recitals, for entering competitions, and for taking auditions for graduate level music programs. I saw the need that so many friends had, and after having quite a terrible experience hiring someone else for my own recording project, I promptly decided to open Winding Road Studios, an audio production company which I still run today. Through friends and family, I was able to raise $5,000 to buy just enough equipment to get off the ground. For years after, nearly every dollar the studio made was reinvested into the company. I made hundreds of student recordings during my Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees at ASU affording me first-hand experience in audio production. More importantly, I learned basics of business, customer service, and how to be sensitive to the variety of personalities and cultures the world is filled with. During this time, I continued honing my main craft as a pianist under the guidance of Robert Hamilton and a mentorship with Paul Harvey Jr. I became a prizewinner in the Bosendorfer International Piano Competition when I was 20 and a prizewinner in the Jacob Flier International Piano Competition when I was 21.
Fast-forward to 2011, I graduated with my Master’s Degree and promptly took a job in Fountain Hills directing the music program at Church of the Ascension. Like my first year of college, it didn’t take long to see that Fountain Hills was hungry for a different type of entertainment than what was being provided. There were some interesting shows around the town, but if someone wanted to see and hear highest level classical artists perform, they needed to make a 30 or 45-minute drive into Tempe or downtown Phoenix. Many people just weren’t doing that. I founded the Arts at Ascension concert series to bring that level of artistry to the Fountain Hills and North Scottsdale community, but I also wanted to go further. Music, regardless of the type or genre you like, is written, recorded, and performed to make us feel, to make us connect with one another, to heal emotional wounds, to inspire us, to give us joy, to help us reflect… the list could go on. While a live concert can definitely provide for those needs of the people in attendance, it also has the ability to reach further. Through ticket sales and sponsorships, Arts at Ascension raises funds for local music education at St. Matthew School in inner-city Phoenix. There are many studies that show how music education benefits brain development, has a strong correlation with better testing abilities, improves both verbal communication skills and cognitive ability especially in math, and increases self-discipline. But so often, music education is the last area to receive academic funding and is the first place funding is cut when the well begins to run dry. Arts at Ascension helps to combat that lack of funding. During a time when most arts programs are struggling to stay afloat, Arts at Ascension is not just self-sustaining but has also raised over $50,000 for music education during its first four years of operation.
We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
The biggest, and I think ongoing struggle is the constant need to know what people are looking for before they can tell you and maybe even before they know it themselves. In the recording and producing environment, this is manifested by: knowing how firm or gentle to be as I coach an artist through a session and taking time to research the artist, their tastes, their prior projects, their desired soundscape, and who they worked with before and why they didn’t repeat their business.
At Arts at Ascension, it’s about knowing my audience demographic and programming events that both meet the mission of the organization and also meet audience expectations and wants. In both of these cases, “reading” people wrongly can have severe repercussions. It could potentially cost an artist thousands or tens of thousands of dollars in the recording studio, or at a concert event could negatively impact future ticket sales which doesn’t just hurt the concert series but also really hurts the students for whom we are raising money. One event alone impacts thousands of lives. It’s really important to get it right before you have time to get a response, positive or negative.
These are things that I had no idea about when I started Winding Road Studios about 12 years ago. I made plenty of mistakes and made plenty of clients upset with me. The difference is I didn’t just learn what I did wrong each time, but I also tried to understand how different approaches would have benefitted clients in different ways. That personalized approach to business is something people react very positively to.
The other large and ongoing struggle is balancing a shortage of time between all of my endeavors. To this point I have mentioned two of those: Winding Road Studios where I engineer and produce recordings for other artists, and Arts at Ascension where I Artistic Direct events and regularly perform. In addition to those things, I’m also pursuing opportunities as a performing solo pianist and freelance musician as well as launching a trio, Vocelliano with two other musicians who live in San Diego. This other work entails things like: album releases, creating YouTube content, arranging, composing, transcribing, orchestrating, being a studio musician on projects for others, and managing business related tasks for all of those. And did I mention I also work a full-time job! I’m regularly working 80 hours per week to keep the ball rolling. Being able to bounce back and forth between ideas, jobs, tasks, and creative time is difficult but something that I’ve needed to learn how to do. The shortage of time is most often what emotionally gets me down and presents a constant challenge.
We’d love to hear more about your business.
Winding Road Studios is an audio production company that specializes in on-location recordings of classical music and film scores. Through Winding Road Studios, I also work as a session pianist, arranger, composer, and producer. Of note, I arranged piano parts for and performed on recordings of Anna Graceman, a singer-songwriter who was a finalist on America’s Got Talent. Through Anna’s Spotify and YouTube streams, millions of listeners have heard my arrangements and playing. As an audio engineer and producer, I bring an understanding of classical music performance, technical execution, and score reading that is rare globally, and especially rare in Phoenix. Having experience on both sides of the microphones gives me extra insight into how performers feel during recording sessions. I’m also able to coach during the session, as well as edit later on, on a note-by-note basis with the performers: where most engineers and producers would only be able to give general feedback, I can pinpoint exact notes, words, and phrases that need attention and communicate the kind of attention necessary. All this is possible because I am first a musician and pianist.
Arts at Ascension is a concert series in Fountain Hills, Arizona that brings nationally and globally recognized talent to an intimate performing space. While most arts organizations struggle to raise enough money to be sustainable, Arts at Ascension is self-sustaining and donates about 50% of its total revenue to arts education for the underprivileged. Even though the series is only beginning its fifth year, the community has come to realize that our events are great entertainment, support a local cause, and every audience member has an opportunity to personally speak to the performers at a free reception after each event. Because of this, for two consecutive years, we have sold out our “priority seating” option to season subscribers one to two months before the season begins.
What were you like growing up?
I was a super shy kid growing up. I’d love to be a part of conversations, but I’d always prefer to listen rather than add thoughts myself. At friend’s birthday parties, you could expect to find me off doing my own thing. If anyone else was around it was usually not more than one friend. I had an early interest in music, and my parents signed me up for piano lessons when I was 4, but I also played baseball and basketball either with school teams or in the local community. In fact, up until I was 14, I spent far more hours practicing baseball than I did practicing music.
Doing well in school was always important to me, not for a high grade, but knowing that I tried as hard as I could. And come to think of it, I had that same mindset for music and sports also.
Before high school, I entered many local music competitions. By the time I was 12 or 13, I had gotten pretty used to leaving the house humming what I’d need to play in the competition and coming home a few hours later holding a 1st place trophy. I got a bit cocky. What I didn’t realize is that these *were* just *local* competitions. I distinctly remember the first event Dr. Horn (from Wheaton College) sent me to when I was 14. I walked into Ganz Hall on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago feeling confident… like I had another one in the bag. I performed and still felt great about how I did… until I was standing in the lobby of the hall listening to the competitor after me through a crack in the doors. I thought, “Whoa, this is really amazing playing.” For the first time, I questioned how well I was going to stack up against the others. Then the ultimate stab to my ego came: the competitor finished, walked out of the hall, and I found out he was an 8-year-old boy. Nothing crushes an early teenager more than learning you got schooled by someone almost half your age. That moment, I realized the world was a much bigger place than I ever imagined, full of more talented and more disciplined people than I. It significantly changed how I approached my life.
Arizona Republic: A Daydream and a Few Piano Notes Leads Artist to Fresh Christmas Tunes
December 17, 2016
When Charles Szczepanek sat down at his piano one winter day, the number 50,000 was not in his mind. He plunked one key and then another, playing a familiar tune. As he musically day dreamed, another melody interrupted. He let the two intertwine.
Szczepanek smiled and went about his day. But a few days later, the improvisation was still ringing in his mind. There was only one way to get it out: write a Christmas album. The song gained a title, "Do You Hear the Drummer Boy?"
"I grew up playing lots of Christmas and holiday parties," says Szczepanek, a composer, arranger and music producer. "But more than a decade after playing the last party, I never expected to sit down alone at home and play Christmas music, let alone improvise totally new renditions."
Szczepanek, a Queen Creek resident, who leads the music ministry at a Fountain Hills church, had no interest in ordinary holiday songs. So "Winter Day Dreaming" shakes up the familiar with unexpected rhythms and variations.
"Carol of the Bells" opens in an unorthodox time signature, catching the listener off guard as the expected final note of the main theme disappears. A YouTube video soared past 50,000 views in a month.
There are mashups like that first improvisation. "The First Noel" weaves in the Quaker hymn "Simple Gifts." An Eastern-influenced "Away in a Manger" rises in the middle of "We Three Kings of Orient Are." Szczepanek added two compositions of his own.
The album stands up to repeated listenings. That's one reason "Indie Music Digest" made the album a pick of the week.
"You start to think to yourself, 'What's he going to do next? Where's he going to take the melody or rhythm now?'" music journalist Dan MacIntosh noted.
Szczepanek appreciates the praise. "Melodies were naturally coming together in ways I hadn't heard before," he says. "I tried to retain a lot of the freshness from my improvisations and add a bit of Hollywood flair, without letting myself get in the way of the original melodies people know and love so much."
"Winter Day Dreaming" is one of the Valley resident's many projects. The featured artist for Mason & Hamlin Piano Co. is working on an album of music from the movies arranged for virtuosic piano. He's director of music and liturgy at Church of the Ascension in Fountain Hills, where he also brings in nationally recognized classical arises for the Arts at Ascension concert series he created. He plays classical piano in solo and collaborative concerts across the country, including performances featuring his Christmas music.
Two videos featuring music from the Christmas album are posted on YouTube. Sheet music also is available at his website, www.charlesszczepanek.com, so other pianists can enjoy his arrangements.
West Valley Tribune: Musical Minister Brings Classical Songs Back to the Church
December 17, 2016
Charles Szczepanek goes a long way to follow his muse. The Queen Creek resident is minister of music and liturgy at the Church of the Ascension, a Catholic church in Fountain Hills.
But the ministry gives him opportunity to reach people with his music, weaving the sacred into his classical piano pieces.
“If you know a little about the history of music, most classical music as we know it started as sacred music,” he said. “Bach’s job was being a music director at church. He happened to write music on the weekend, but that’s what he did full time.”
Szczepanek (pronounced “Stepanek”) has a master’s degree in classical piano performance.
“I’ve been assistant musical director in churches where I grew up in since I was a kid in Chicago,” he said. “I have been picking music for services since I was 10 or 12 years old.”
Szczepanek has a foot in both the sacred and secular music world.
“The classical music sphere is different from the church sphere,” he said. “When it was originally performed, it was in the cathedral for a couple hundred people, and maybe eight people performed it.
“Classical music was really part of the church for a long, long time.”
He is trying to bridge the gap with his own recordings, which are available on iTunes, Amazon and CDBaby. More information is available at his own website, charlesszczepanek.com.
“Winter Day Dreaming” is filled with Christmas covers and the original title song. One favorite is an arrangement of “Carol of the Bells,” with an unusual 5/8 time signature.
“Everybody always plays ‘Carol of the Bells,’ and the same way,” Szczepanek said. “I wanted to do something different.”
The album grew out of playing at parties for fun.
“It was around December 2012, and I started playing some of the stuff I used to play for people and at parties. Before I knew it, everything I had learned in school or the past six years was melding with all the rest I had been so familiar with,” he said.
“So, these are new arrangements of Christmas tunes that started happening. I wasn’t even planning on releasing an album and instead just having fun. I played a little something, and I thought that’s cool. The next day, I’d play something different, that’s cool, too. About a week later, I thought I should just put them together and do a Christmas album.”
Szczepanek also tours the country playing classical piano.
“Anytime I’m not playing in church, people don’t really understand what I do,” he said.
“I do a little touring at universities around the country, and they think I’m a professor. I tell them what I do the rest of my time, in church, and they say, ‘Oh, that’s interesting!’”
Some of that disconnect is because of their previous church music experience.
“If they’ve only been to one of those big churches, they’re stunned by the difference with Catholic Mass,” he said, contrasting his classical music with the rock-show feel some Protestant churches feature.
“They can be cool, in their own way, and bring spirituality to the younger generation. My own friends feel the Catholic church is a little out of touch with what they need in their world. I always say give them a chance! It doesn’t have to be a big show to keep their interest.”
He tailors the music at his church to his audience.
“A lot of the people in Fountain Hills are winter visitors, so I try to keep the music the same for people—at least some of the same they hear when they’re back home.”
He also is director of a concert series at the church, bringing in classical performers and others.
“I usually try to give the audience something cool that they’re not going to get. We have had American standards, jazz, musical theater.”
Szczepanek feels the spiritual power of music when he performs.
“I’ve really come to see music as something that helps people in a lot of ways,” he said.
“For a long time, part of the draw for me playing at church is the fact that I get this satisfaction that I’m helping people pray. It’s going to be different for everybody who is there. That feeling is great.
“There’s been a lot of scientific talk about music and especially music therapy, how it helps the body and mind and all that. I’ve always believed it’s far deeper than that.
“I believe the reason the music helps the physical is that it’s spiritual in nature.”
Despite his obvious link to the church, when he’s on tour, most avoid the questions about his faith.
“A lot of people are afraid of asking. And they’re afraid of the answers they’re going to get,” Szczepaneksaid.
“We live in a world of instant gratification, and religion of any kind teaches quite the opposite. It’s uncomfortable for people to really delve into that. It goes against most of the world that they believe in.”
He feels the two sides of his career are in perfect alignment.
“I don’t have a big problem trying to reconcile the two sides of what I do,” Szczepanek said. “If people want to know about my faith, I’ll tell them whatever they want to know. If they don’t ask, I’m comfortable with that, and that maybe somehow, they had a deeper experience anyway.
“Music is a way you can touch people so deeply, and you don’t have to hit them over the head with scripture quoting. You don’t have to be so aggressive about trying to get someone to meet you where you are or where they are. Just play.
“If you’re doing it the right way, and with the right intentions, it is kind of a magical thing.”
Album Review: Winter Day Dreaming, by Dan Cohen
January 28, 2015
Are you sitting down? Perhaps with a comforter around you, a loved one near, a hot beverage of choice nearby and a fire blazing in the hearth? Now you may be ready for Charles Szczepanek's Winter Day Dreaming, an album of simple, soulful solo piano interpretations of classic Christmas melodies, along with some of his own works. His playing is clean and crisp, the production even moreso. This is someone who clearly cares about his piano sound, as he not only played but is apparently the chief engineer on the recording. He also credits the piano (a Mason and Hamlin BB), and not one but two piano technicians (oh, ok, Scott Helms and Rick Florence), which is kind and understandable. The piano sound is clear and rich, and Szczepanek's playing sensitive and soaring by turns. His Carol of the Bells is a wonder. I always thought of it as an ur-waltz, the definition of 3/4 time, but he gives it a lilting 6/8 feel that takes it in new directions, and adds arpeggiation and other pianistic filigrees that he pulls off with ease and panache. The Gift of Noel, the improv that started it all, according to his liner notes, is a tender mash-up of the well-known Shaker song Simple Gifts, and the soaring Christmas Carol Noel, Noel. He makes both sing, and the confluence of both seem as natural as snow on a winter's morn. O Holy Night gets the opposite treatment, at first. He plays the melody, very slowly and deliberately, over only the most skeletal accompaniment. The song gains momentum as he adds parts and accompaniment. I wish in fact he had been a bit more free with the melody as he went along, created a kind of theme and variations with it.
But no matter. Szczepanek has created a rich and full album, very pretty, and yet not arranged in your typical easy listening paint-by-numbers manner. His work shows a keen musical mind at work and repays repeated listening. Even after Christmas. Just don't attempt to write his name after an overabundance of egg nog.
Album Review: Winter Day Dreaming, by Andrea Guy
December 30, 2013
There has probably never been another CD so appropriately named as Charles Szczepanek’s Winter Day Dreaming. This collection of instrumental holiday tunes will put anyone in a festive mood. Winter Day Dreaming consists of nine holiday favorites played by Charles Szczepanek and two original compositions. This is the perfect addition to anyone’s holiday music collection. Solo piano brings a wintry element to the music. The tinkling of the keys seems to add a chill to the air. Holiday music is something people love or hate. There’s no way that you can hate the music of Winter Day Dreaming. Though the songs are nearly all classics, there is nothing cheesy or gimmicky about the arrangements that Charles has done. These are just songs that everyone knows, stripped down to their barest, just a piano bringing their melodies to life.
Whether you are listening to “What Child Is This” or “O Holy Night” you’ll feel like you are in an intimate setting, perhaps in front of the tree, or the fire, with hot cocoa at hand. Whatever you visualize, you’ll probably feel the stillness and peacefulness of the music. “O Holy Night” has a particularly quiet arrangement. This is a song that is usually comes with a full orchestra, and yet, Charles brings it down a notch or two. It is so calm and so soothing. The piano almost sounds like a music box playing. “Silent Night” has a similar arrangement. It is hard to give words to the music that Charles has created. It is easy to string adjectives along, such as beautiful, stunning, gentle and calming, but those only touch the tip of what he’s done here. “Silent Night” is now a lullaby and that is perfect when you think of the lyrics that you aren’t hearing. Even though they play through your head with each note. Charles does a marvelous job with “Carol Of The Bells.” The keys ring out the tune, as lively as any bells could do and without fanfare. This is probably the most energetic melody on the album, especially as the melody reaches the crescendo. “Snowfall” is one of Charles’ original compositions. The arrangement, like those on the traditional tunes, is one of lightness. This is music that is very visual. Without even knowing the title of the song, you can easily picture a blanket of white covering a country landscape and feel a bite of cold in the air. “Winter Day Dreaming” has a lilting melody. It is easy to imagine this song in the background of a holiday film, probably a romantic comedy. It would be playing as the guy finally gets the girl.One of the most beautiful songs found in this collection is “Angels We Have Heard On High.” As Charles’ fingers glide over the keys, it may be hard not to sing along with the melody, though the piano keys do some lovely singing of their own. Charles has some drama and flair towards the end allowing the song to pack a nice punch. The album closes with “Auld Lang Syne” which is appropriate. Christmas is over and the New Year is waiting. The solo piano seems to sound lonely sending off the old year.
In a world where big and flashy things are all the norm, Charles Szczerpanek delivers a holiday album that is just the opposite. This album is beautiful in all its simplicity. One man, one piano and eleven songs that will fill you with holiday spirit even in the middle of summer. If you are looking for something that isn’t all glitz and glamour for your holiday music collection, Winter Day Dreaming is the CD you must have.
Album Review: Winter Day Dreaming, by Dan MacIntosh
December 23, 2013
Charles Szczepanek’s Winter Day Dreaming album is comprised of holiday music, but it’s not filled with by-the-book versions of these familiar songs. Szczepanek is a classical pianist by trade, and you can tell this in the way he plays these various seasonal favorites. And even though these recordings are by no means jazzy, Szczepanek nevertheless takes on his interpretations with a jazz composer’s perspective. This means he plays the melodies faithfully at times, while all the while improvising around them and taking appropriate liberties with rhythms.
A good example of what Szczepanek does well is “Carol of the Bells,” which – though beautiful, melodically – can be a bit repetitious at times. In Szczepanek’s skilled hands, though, the song changes keys and evolves from a light, pretty melody, to a nearly Beethoven-esque (Think 5th Of) at one point with some powerful left hand chords. Instead of this just being a predictable run-through of “Carol of the Bells,” Szczepanek transforms the relatively simple tune into nearly symphonic proportions.
The advantage of Szczepanek’s unique approach is that it changes listening from that of over familiarity, to something much more attentive. You start to think to yourself, ‘What’s he going to do next? Where’s he going to take the melody or rhythm now?’ This is especially useful for holiday music. By the time Christmas Day is nearly upon us, we’ve already heard many of the most popular songs dozens of times. We can’t get away from them, whether we’re at the mall or driving in our cars. Christmas music is everywhere. When something like “O Holy Night” comes on over the speakers wherever we are, we sometimes go into automatic response mode: we know exactly what the words are, which notes come next and how the song will ultimately end. It’s not that we don’t love these songs; we’ve just been oversaturated by them. With that said, I wonder how many people find themselves humming the birthday song to themselves, for instance. Probably nobody. That’s because we hear it at parties and sometimes two or three times every time we go out to dinner at a restaurant. Christmas music shouldn’t be as predictable in our minds as the birthday song, but too many times it is.
While Szczepanek is a skilled pianist, it’s his arranging inventiveness that comes through most clearly during Winter Day Dreaming. And Winter Day Dreaming is an appropriate title for this work. You get the sense he was constantly dreaming up ways to reinvent some of Christmas’ best loved songs. Had he not done so, this album could have devolved into little more than karaoke bar time at the company Christmas party. It’s because Szczepanek plays solo piano throughout. There aren’t any other instruments for him to play off of. There aren’t even any singers for him to accompany. If he just played these melodies straight, they would have gotten old fast. They certainly would have gotten old for the performer especially. Szczepanek’s Winter Day Dreaming has recreated these songs in such a way that they send the listener on imaginative mental journeys. Christmas, after all, is about the dream of a better world where everybody is more loving toward one another than they are throughout the rest of the year.
I’m sure there are some people reading this review appalled at the very notion of significantly rearranging popular holiday songs. These songs are not Holy Scripture, however! These tunes are, instead, the winter day dreams of their composers, where these creators must have played around with each one before settling upon final forms. I also imagine there are many other people reading this that would be ecstatic to get jolted out of their seasonal listening complacency. They’d love to hear something done a little differently, just as they sometimes enjoy their food prepared in alternate ways. And to those adventurous ones I say, ‘Enjoy these bold new musical flavors!’
Album Review: Winter Day Dreaming, by Kelly O'Neal
December 19, 2013
Christmas carols are akin to the National Anthem. If the performance goes awry everyone knows. Pianist Charles Szczepanek has successfully tackled the sticky situation of adding variations to traditional carols without creating an uproar. His dynamics technique is lovely and his sense of timing is perfect.
A mysterious introductory theme with incessant eighth notes opens “What Child Is This?” adding a creative countermelody to the beloved “Greensleeves” motif. Szczepanek displays his technical prowess by running up and down the keyboard, however the modulating bridge section might be a little over the top for traditionalists. He exhibits utmost reverence in “Silent Night” playing tenderly and delicately. The young man takes his time with the sweet lullaby exuding peace and tranquility. This same thoughtfulness is evident in “O Holy Night.” Szczepanek deliberately plays every rest and lets the silence between the stark melody linger before he continues on without adding many extras to the hymn. “Angels We Have Heard on High” is treated to a grandiose finale and a twinkle is heard in the hopeful New Year’s song “Auld Lang Syne.” Adding to the complexity of the dramatic “Carol of the Bells,” Szczepanek’s interpretation is in a mixed meter creating more tension in this Ukrainian folksong.
Winter Day Dreaming is the Arizona native’s second album and came out after an inspired improvisational sitting. Szczepanek began playing Christmas music and one song started flowing into another. His knowledge of the piano and chord structures is appreciated in the three mash-ups he has composed for this recording. “Do You Hear the Drummer Boy?” is for the most part “Do You Hear What I Hear” with a few snippets of “The Little Drummer Boy” cleverly woven into the latter half of the song. Despite its abrupt ending, the Shaker melody “Simple Gifts” transforming out of “The First Noel” in “The Gift of Noel” is brilliant. Another surprise came in “Star of Wonder” as snatches of “Away in a Manger” with an Eastern flair are heard in the middle of “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”
Additionally, the young pianist includes two original works on Winter Day Dreaming. The title track consists of lovely rising and falling of the melodic line, like swirling snowflakes. Szczepanek has a propensity for the upper register of the piano throughout the album and is a stand out for the bright melody in “Snowfall.”
Despite his amazing technical abilities, Szczepanek does not drown out the well-known tunes with flashy playing or deliberate unnecessary rhythmic exercises. He adds subtle twists and turns to the carols that do not stray far from their origin and his playing is genuine. Winter Day Dreaming is a must have for the holidays to help wind down from the hustle and bustle and remember the true meaning of the season.
Album Review: Winter Day Dreaming, by Cyrus Rhodes
Accomplished Pianist Charles Szczepanek just released his latest CD entitled Winter Day Dreaming in 2013. From adding new flair to the traditions of classical music performance, to pushing the limits of modern recording technology, to creating and composing music of all styles and types, Charles is one of a very few remarkable individuals who truly grasp the essence of music and have the ability to put that understanding to work in a wide variety of ways. Winter Day Dreaming: A powerful solo piano album, rich and sonorous, featuring new contemporary arrangements of holiday favorites as well as two original compositions.
The CD gently takes to flight with “What Child is This” a methodical yet soothing intro piece with solitary piano, possessing much in the way of dynamics and passion. I especially like how this piece flows and ebbs its way through to emotional fruition. Track 2 “Silent Night” shifts gears a bit with solitary intro, lending itself to a tranquil melody that sucks you in with its hypnotic rhythm and mesmerizing musical flow. Track 3 “Do You Hear the Drummer Boy” serves up more of the same impressive piano virtuoso with advanced syncopation and brilliant playing that will sure to make your head spin. The CD makes a solid first impression dishing out 3 amazing pieces in a row. As the CD unfolds I can hear many musical influences reminiscent of classic George Winston, David Lanz, Jim Chappell and Kathleen Ryan. Right from the start you will notice Szczepanek feels quite comfortable just letting it all hang out musically, not holding anything back. The overall musical vibe has a nice peaceful and tranquil feel to it. Other times quite intense and passionate. The piano playing is defiantly contemporary Jazz with a splash of Americana, classical and even R&B. Despite the singular musical element it’s quite amazing how versatile the music really is. No doubt more work is required form a musician to fill this sonic space all by himself thus keeping the attention span of the listener all by himself. Brilliant artists can rise to this challenge, and I give Szczepanek high marks for taking this on and even pulling it off. The musicianship is clearly first rate as he pushes the natural accents extremely well. Many forget the piano is a percussion instrument. Having said that the touch Szczepanek has with respect to flow and ebb passion playing is as good as it gets. The songs themselves are short and sweet musical experiences, each one possessing unique personality, flair, and signature groove. From the hypnotic title track to impassioned “Carol of the Bells” and “What Child is This” to tranquil “Snowfall” and “O Holy Night” this CD pretty much has something for just about everyone. The CD ends with “Auld Lang Syne” the perfect finale statement to an amazing holiday catalog like this.
I fully realize this is a subjective art form, and I know how much people enjoy solitary Piano music, but I can't help but wonder what some of these arrangements would sound like with very light and conservative touches of orchestral drums, stand-up bass, strings, cello, orchestral strings, violin and sparse percussive elements. A few of the songs over 5 minutes tend to drag you to the finish line - a microcosm of the entire catalogue. At the end of the day all of the above would just render a catalogue of music more versatile, entertaining and synergetic in nature.
Winter Day Dreaming by Charles Szczepanek is a brilliant collection of music. It’s a pleasure to hear many of these Christmas classics assembled together via this timeless collection. The strong suit of this CD is how Szczepanek makes each one these pieces his own via his remarkable touch and playing virtuoso. Song for song, note for note its rock solid catalogue of music. It just has a nice feel good groove to it. This CD is perfect for Bed and Breakfast or Boutique owners everywhere, and will no doubt be at the top of the list to play when there is snow falling outside. But above all this catalogue will work best on those snowy days you want a solitary musical statement to fill your sonic space. It’s strong suit – the consistency of Charles Szczepanek as he clearly knows how to fill the space with peaceful tranquility and amazing playing and composing.
Album Review: Flirting with the Dragon, by Radu A. Lelutiu
Despite his youth, Szczepanek seems to draw his inspiration from pianists of the Golden Era. Thus, his performance of the three Petrarca Sonnets is vocally inflected, declamatory, and filled with rolled chords and grand romantic gestures. There is a great deal of rubato, many tempo shifts, impetuous flights of fancy, and some occasional tinkering with the notes Liszt marked in his score. While Szczepanek’s old-fashioned approach will most likely not appeal to everyone and there are other pianists who find considerably greater depth in these works (for instance, in the third sonnet I miss the subtlety and ravishing tonal beauty brought to bear by Eugene Choi in her all-Liszt recital I reviewed in the last issue of Fanfare), those who like their Liszt uninhibited will probably enjoy these performances. The aforementioned qualities also abound in Szczepanek’s performance of the famous Liebestod. This is beautiful playing, although like many other pianists Szczepanek seems to forget that Wagner’s score depicts Isolde’s, rather than Tristan’s, demise, and thus the virile, outsized dynamics he brings to the closing pages strike me as a little over the top. The last piece in the Liszt selection is the rarely played funeral music Liszt composed in 1870 for Mihály Mosonyi, a little-known Hungarian composer. This score is visionary, late Liszt, light years away from the Sonnets, and perhaps paradoxically, this austere work inspires Szczepanek’s most memorable playing on this disc.
Szczepanek dedicates the remainder of his recording to three works by contemporary American composer (and radio personality) Paul Harvey Aurandt Jr. Aurandt writes in an old-fashioned, romantic idiom reminiscent of Charles-Valentin Alkan, Alexander Scriabin, and Sergei Rachmaninoff (no wonder that Aurandt and Szczepanek seem to be kindred spirits!), but there are also pop elements in his music. While, at least to my ears, Aurandt’s music is neither particularly interesting nor memorable, it is fiendishly difficult to play. Szczepanek rises to the occasion and, to the extent that this music entails a confrontation with one or more dragons or serpents, I hereby pronounce Szczepanek the winner.
The recording was produced by Szczepanek himself, and the quality of the sound is very good if very resonant. Szczepanek plays a bright instrument with a booming, bass-heavy voice reminiscent of Vladimir Horowitz’s legendary pianos.