Stearns Matthews: December Songs

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Stearns Matthews

December Songs
A Song Cycle by Maury Yeston

(Chlo-Rita Productions)

February 19, 2018

Reviewed by John Hoglund for Cabaret Scenes

Some artists are not afraid to take chances; that’s what makes them stand out from the crowd. Stearns Matthews is one such artist.

His new CD, December Songs, is a unique undertaking. It is a song cycle by Maury Yeston. Much of it is about different directions. It is also the first time this suite, originally commissioned for Andrea Marcovicci for the centennial of Carnegie Hall in 1991, has been recorded by a male artist. Broadway’s Yeston, a two-time Tony Award winner for Nine and Titanic, found inspiration from Franz Schubert’s Die Winterreise (The Winter Journey) dark song cycle — settings of poems by Wilhelm Müller—  chronicling a young man pining for life and lost love as he wanders through an Austrian forest. In his syllabus, Yeston creates a powerful vision of a young lady walking through Central Park. The piece has been recorded in several languages by various artists over the years; all special, all ladies.

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This matters little once the award-winning singer sinks into these songs.

Opening with the reflective “December Snow,” he recalls forlorn memories of loss: “… no one really knew me then, no one knows me now…things were so much different then as they’ll never be again.” He carries similar thoughts in an upbeat flair on the kinetic “Where Are You Now?” The pain of “Please Let’s Not Even Say Hello” is given an expressive reading that is a highlight. Matthews’ sensitive phrasing brings true meaning to the words as he wistfully sums up a man with a sensitive heart in this beauty: “… I’m just not good at letting go, so, please, let’s not even say hello.” Broadly speaking, this material shares a common theme: balancing resignation, a sense of loss and hope as they distill the long view. That outlook is embodied in Matthews’ sincere delivery in a supple tenor that is a perfect match for these poignant songs. He is particularly effective painting a trenchant picture on “My Grandmother’s Love Letters” that recalls another time and sweet memories: “…

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when she was seventeen/ Think what they had to mean/ They were a world to her, they were her youth/ She tied them with a bow /77 years ago… I miss her so.” “By the River” is an intensely driving story song about looking back from the  icy bridge and pondering. Aside from the ethereal vocals, the brilliant underpinning of Markus Grae-Hauk’s flowing, semi-classical piano swelling like a rippling waterfall that allows the voice and instrument to breathe as one makes for the album’s finest cut: “… River calling, come be my lover… I will bring you freedom, flow along with me to the sea.”

There is a visual detail and a dramatic force with which Yeston infuses his song cycle. Stearns Matthews conveys the simple as well as the complex emotions needed in each vignette for an intelligent and strong undertaking on every cut. What makes December Songs so appealing are some unexpected turns the songs take the listener. First, a softer, gentle romance is recalled in “My Grandmother’s Love Letters.” Then, moments later, he is standing “By the River” pondering ending the pain forever. This sustains a mood of deep contemplation throughout. The story ends optimistically with “What a Relief” fused with tidbits of other songs interwoven to wrap up an emotional journey of soliloquies from a character who yearns for a lost love. The listener will decide the outcome.

The excellent musicians deserve a lot of credit for this special CD with Grae-Hauck (piano), Amy Crafton (woodwinds) and Dave Richards (bass). Matthews did the orchestrations for the woodwinds, and he and Richards did the orchestrations for the bass.

John Hoglund

For over 30 years, John Hoglund has been a respected entertainment writer covering cabaret, jazz, theater and recordings. His writings have appeared in numerous outlets including the Bistro Bits column for Back Stage. John moderated seminars and forums for the International Cabaret Conference At Yale. He produced many celebrity fundraisers in NYC including one of the first benefits after 9/11: “HeartSong:The Heroes' Concert” at The Bottom Line featuring 36 major stars. He co-produced “HeartSong2: The Heroes' Concert” for Katrina victims at Symphony Space and “Miracle On 35th Street” with a star-studded lineup. Other fund raising efforts include the first benefits for Broadway Cares and God's Love, We Deliver. John served on the Board of Directors of MAC for 12 years. He is well known for championing new and rising talents.