I heard Vanessa Simmons play at St William’s College in York in June. I was blown away by her piano playing and so I leapt at the first opportunity I had to get my hands on her album.
On listening to Fragile Stars it is immediately apparent that Simmons has a rich background in score writing. As a collection of short piano compositions, the nine independent pieces are caringly blended into a series of powerful movements through the clever use of a number of refrains, resulting in a distinct tonal and thematic direction on the album. The album isn’t so much about anything – it is as sad as it is happy and as hard as it is soft – but in its fluidity it becomes an easy and an enjoyable listen. If you like emotive piano pieces then it will get you feeling. If you like clever composition then it’s liable to get you thinking. Vanessa Simmons has a lot to offer her listeners.
Opening with ‘Winter’s Requiem’ and culminating in ‘Transcendence’ there is an undeniably cinematic tone to Fragile Stars. The earlier and defiantly filmic tracks on the album are stylistically reminiscent of compositions by Chopin and Nobuo Uematsu and their tone is rooted in the correspondence between several softly cinematic moments and the generally sweeping and dramatic movement of Simmons’ writing – all of it endowed with a Mozart meets Clint Mansell edge.
The latter part of the album allows Simmons’ voice to shine through and though the vocals on Fragile Stars favour their stylistic touches over lyrical complexity, this, in itself, allows plenty of breathing space for her characteristic piano playing.
In both the vocals and the piano there are elemental shifts throughout that lend the music a bluesy tone. For example, two minutes into the second track there is a momentary slip into something almost bluesy before the composition returns to the classical piano played throughout. Using this tonal shift as a motif of sorts and working from there, Simmons creates a detailed pattern and weaves together a variety of stylistic techniques.
These first few tracks stood out to me as the most promising material by dint of the confidence with which they are put together. Though production is solid throughout, it is stronger where the piano stands alone. And, whilst the vocals have their outstanding moments, Simmons’ voice sounds as if it has the capacity to push beyond the limits of the recordings used on Fragile Stars. That is to say that the bluesy moments in both the lyrics and their delivery belie the potential for a far more boisterous and perhaps more entertaining use of vocals.
One of the cleverest things about the composition of Fragile Stars is its ability to lend itself to pretty much any mood. If you’re on the lookout for something moving and dramatic or indeed inspirational, Vanessa Simmons has a track for that; and if you simply want mood-music or something to read or write to then she has a track for that too. It’s safe to say that this is some of the most accessible compositional classical piano that I have heard in a long time.
On a final note, and having listened to her play live earlier this year, I recommend that, should you see tickets advertised, you go and see Vanessa Simmons in concert. Watch this space for tour updates!