Holiday music is perhaps not the most interesting genre – but take my word for it; Dana Cunningham’s “What I Hear: A Collection of Carols” is fascinating. It is an EP that presents four carols as a prelude to a full album, which arrives in 2021. It is as if Cunningham’s eagerness to share this inspired piece of music morphs with the story behind it all; the annunciation to the shepherds (Luke 2) – which is, as you know, the most common subject in Christmas carols. The music seems to answer the rhetorical question: “Do You Hear What I Hear?” with a mighty “Yes”, and we get a sense of the angelic music the shepherds heard in the fields the night Christ was born.
Dana Cunningham’ studied piano at The Blair School of Music while completing her B.S. in Communication from Vanderbilt University. Her diverse influences include a master’s in biblical studies from Dallas Theological Seminary, work at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, and a sabbatical at Our Lady of Guadalupe Monastery, a Benedictine community near Santa Fe. Originally from Texas, Dana now lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. She has released five albums. “What I Hear: A Collection of Carrols” is recorded on an 1898 Steinway B Piano. The mixing and mastering are done by Gerry Putnam.
Do You Hear What I Hear
In my opinion, only the very best pianists have a signature sound. Cunningham’s piano has a distinctive “voice”. You only have to listen for a few seconds on “Do You Hear What I Hear” to receive her special vibe. Noël Regney and Gloria Shayne’s 1962 classic is played in a contemplative way, making each note count. When Max Dyer’s cello cuts in, deep and hauntingly beautiful, you will pay attention – whether you intend to or not. This is not music for passive listening. It makes the more joyous version of this beloved carol seem shallow in comparison.
The reflective sound continues on “What Child is This”. As much as I love Andrea Bocelli and Mary J. Blige’s version, Cunningham takes it to the next level – making the shepherds’ adoration come to life before our inner eye. I love how you almost can “hear” the question mark in the title, making you wonder like the shepherds about this child “Whom angels greet with anthems sweet”, to quote William Chatterton Dix’s lyrics.
We Three Kings
“We Three Kings” brings something new and dignified to the EP’s narrative, although they too are wondering “What Child is This”. The opening shows Cunningham’s incredible talent as a pianist, and Dyer’s cello merely fills in as the piece develops. At this stage, it seems necessary to mention that both the arrangement and the recording are spotless. The piano is very close, while the cello is more distant – adding colors and depth.
“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” concludes the EP. The toned-down version is very much in tune with the EP, and it feels more “real” than the usual exuberant versions we all know well. It is breathtakingly beautiful and leaves you wanting more.
In conclusion: “What I Hear: A Collection of Carrols” is a very welcome taste of Dana Cunningham’s 2021 Holiday album. That said, the EP stands well on its own feet. Each of the four carols is perfectly performed with careful consideration of harmony and technique and, most importantly, deep love and respect for the carols. It is often said that Cunningham’s piano makes the listeners listen – and that is rare, especially when it comes to Holiday music. It will be exciting to check out the whole album and see how Cunningham will make the nativity of Jesus come to life.
If you like what you hear, check out Dana Cunningham’s classic “Silent Night” (2005). That, too, is highly recommended.
For more information and music samples, visit danacunningham.com