Red Wing pianist releases new Christmas CD
Looking through his grandparents' old family hymnal, pianist Neal Topliff started to pick songs for his next album. That was just more than a year ago.
The Red Wing resident recently released "A Midnight Clear," his 10th CD and second Christmas compilation.
"I have always loved Christmas and the music was always a big part of the holiday season," Topliff said. "I wanted to put a spin on some holiday favorites as well as write my own."
The 12-track album features nine traditional arrangements and three original pieces including "Christmas Past," "A Christmas Prayer" and "First Snow" -- a song Topliff is particularly drawn to.
The day after finding out his father was diagnosed with prostate cancer last year, Topliff began writing the song.
"At that time, we didn't know the full extent of his illness but as I sat down at the piano, I reflected back on our past Christmases together and remembered a very special time when he and I went out at night to get a Christmas tree," Topliff explained. "I remember it being a full moon and very cold as we bundled up and walked through the woods to pick out the tree. We sawed it down and pulled it back home on a sled. It is a memory that is as clear as a scene from a movie and I held this image in my mind as I wrote the music."
The possibility of that Christmas being his father's last also played a part in the tone of that piece, Topliff said, but he added his father is doing very well at the moment and his family is looking forward to sharing another holiday season together.
Six of the songs on the new release are sprinkled with a violin accompaniment played by Carolyn Boulay.
"I really love hearing the violin on the CD," Topliff said. "I was originally going to have it be just piano then I started writing an arrangement for 'In the Bleak Midwinter' and while writing a harmony part on the piano could hear the violin so clearly in my head that I had to do it."
Boulay has worked with Topliff on previous recordings.
"I wrote some simple harmony parts for her to play that really enhanced the overall project," he said.
Growing up just north of Duluth, Minn., Topliff's long-lasting relationship with the piano began at age 5. His musical journey continued as he learned how to play the violin, French horn, English handbells and guitar. "First Love," his first debut solo piano CD, was released 14 years ago.
The success of his first album release enabled the creation of Harbour Light Music, Topliff's own recording and publishing company which still is in operation today.
Listening to Topliff's work, one can easily hear and feel his deep connection with the piano. His soothing sounds have been compared to top-selling artists like Lorie Line, George Winston, Josh Tesh and Michael Jones.
"I think it is natural for people to categorize you, or try to put you into a frame of reference that they are familiar with. I am honored to be thought of in the same genre with any of these people but in most of these cases I would say the only similarity between them and myself is that we all play the piano," he explained. "While Lorie Line and I both live in Minnesota and like Yamaha pianos, she definitely dresses better than myself."
After Topliff's first Christmas album, "Snow Angels," was released 10 years ago the music became a part of a family tradition for many people playing while wrapping presents, baking and eating Christmas dinner, he said.
Last year he signed a distribution agreement with Promotion Music selling more copies of "Snow Angels" in three months than he had in the previous nine years. Based on that success, the owner, Helen Marrs, asked Topliff to do another Christmas CD.
"I agreed and the idea for 'A Midnight Clear' was put in motion," he said.
The songs on the new CD work very well together. From the introductory selection "In the Bleak Midwinter" to classics "Oh Come Oh Come Emmanuel" and "The First Noel," the pieces transition together to create a perfect blend of Christmas charm created by Topliff's talent on piano. As the violin is weaved in throughout the album, listeners are taken on a peaceful path to complement the holiday season.
Topliff thanked his wife Beth and oldest son Noah for taking the time to put the songs in the final order as seen on the CD and said "it is a very solid recording from beginning to end."
"A Midnight Clear" is available for purchase locally at Loons and Ladyslippers and at the Red Wing Stoneware Company.
Topliff will be playing at this year's Holiday Stroll on Friday Nov. 23 -- accompanied not with a violin but with live penguins -- doing a CD signing at the Depot from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday Nov. 24 and performing on the grand piano at the Anderson Center's Holiday Show from noon to 4:30 p.m.
For more information about Topliff, visit www.harbourlightmusic.com.
If you go
Neal Topliff will perform at this year's Holiday Stroll on Friday Nov. 23 in downtown Red Wing. Here are some other highlights of the event:
Pancake breakfast, 7 to 10 a.m., Elks Club
Festival of Trees, 2 to 7 p.m., fifth floor of St. James Hotel
Christmas sing-along, 4 p.m., Christ Episcopal Church
Chili from Treasure Island, starting at 4:30 p.m., Mural Park; other treats and snacks also will be available for purchase throughout the day.
Performance by the Sixth Street Trio, starting at 4:30 p.m., Mural Park
Live nativity, starting at 5 p.m., Christ Episcopal Church
Carolers from St. Joseph Catholic Church in Miesville, 5 p.m., throughout downtown Red Wing
Performance by Reed Grimm and the Shoeless Revolution, 6 p.m., Mural Park
Parade, 7 p.m., on Bush and Third streets
From 4 to 8 p.m.: penguins at 427 W. Third St., Santa Claus in Jordan Court, sleigh rides from reindeer, hand-painted ornaments for sale, two window of gifts giveaways, medallion hunt and more.