Listening to Sharon Fendrich’s new album Sapphire Oak – which is being released today – one can’t help thinking about the oak’s symbolic image and role in society throughout time. These trees have become associated with longevity, endurance, fertility, power and honesty. It is incredible how Fendrich captures all these qualities in her music and makes us see the mighty oak before our inner eye. It is also worth mentioning that the album is Fendrich’s debut as a vocalist. She has a great tone and character, making the album even more memorable. Mark my words; Sapphire Oak will be on many “best of 2022” lists!
Sharon Fendrich was born and raised in Eugene, Oregon, USA. She began music studies at age three and completed advanced studies in piano, choral music, conducting, orchestration and composition in college at Tufts University. Her current vocal studies include opera, jazz, and musical theatre. In 2019, she released her debut album Red Sky Prairie. In my review, I wrote that “The album establishes Fendrich as one of the most promising New Age music artists today.”
Before moving on, I will say a few words about Sharon’s creative process. She improvises on a musical idea at the piano until it begins to take a shape under her hands. Like a ceramist, Fendrich uses her instincts to manipulate the clay—the melodies, harmonies and countermelodies inhabiting her work—before committing it to the “kiln” (i.e.: recording) that delivers the song into the world. Listening to Sapphire Oak, that hint of improvisation gives the album a unique flow, or perhaps energy is a better way to describe it. The album features Lisa Rydberg on violin, Klara Källström on cello, Stina Hellberg Agback on harp and Ian Harper on Irish whistle and Uilleann pipes.
Sea of Oaks
The album opener is called Sea of Oaks. Once the primary building material in ships, the strength and durability of oaks literally connected the world for centuries. It starts with gentle piano and flute, and then full orchestral arrangement follows, making it easy to envision first the mighty oaks and then the equally mighty ships crossing every ocean on the planet. Sharon writes: “What if the tree had memory and longed for its home in the grove, with its family of trees? What if it knew it would never return, and the oak could come to embrace its prideful purpose upon the sea?” That duality of longing and pride, sorrow and dignity, is magnificently presented in Sea of Oaks! It is a fabulous album opener. Bravo!
One of the finest pieces on the album is the triumphant Leaves of Glory. Through conflict and war, the oaks have been silent witnesses and have often been damaged or cut down. For instance, whole forests of oak and chestnut trees were completely destroyed during the 302-day-long Battle of Verdun in World War I. Sharon paints a moving picture of how the peaceful forests were disturbed and how the trees hang in there while the landscape was torn apart by war. The first time I heard Leaves of Glory, I had to put it on replay – unwilling to listen to anything else for a long time.
The Groves at Dodona
Now the focus changes to the realm of symbolism and deeper meaning. We find ourselves in ancient Greece, at The Groves at Dodona, near the second oldest Oracle. The careful and gentle introduction capture the atmosphere beneath the sacred oaks, which according to Herodotus (Histories 2.57) were planted when two black doves flew from Thebes in Egypt; one dove settled in Libya to found the sanctuary of Zeus Ammon, and the other settled in an oak tree at Dodona, proclaiming a sanctuary to Zeus be built there. Sharon Fendrich’s vocal, which is introduced here for the first time, is magnificent! It is as if the oracle herself, the high priestess Pythia, is singing. But don’t take my word for it – check it out yourself:
The voyage continues north, following Runic Roots. The melody twists and turns wonderfully and the sounds of wind and rain make it even more atmospheric. The combination of xylophone, flute and strings is wonderful – and Fendrich takes it to the next level with her singing. “The chanted word is Ansuz, the “a” rune of the Elder Futhark – the eldest form of the runic alphabets,” explains Fendrich. “As the Anglo-Frisian languages developed, the Ansuz rune was split into three – one of which became Āc, which led to the word oak”.
Call of the Ruins
The meditative and spiritual Call of the Ruins seems to speak directly to the heart and soul. If you listen with headphones, it feels as if you are sitting in the shade of an oak. The Hebrew lyrics translate as: “Here in this place where you walked, and where you prayed, and where you cried, I hear your prayer and taste your tears.” Fendrich’s vocal has a character and tone that connects us with the past, bringing it life – before The Oaken Door gives us a taste of Celtic lore. The explanation is that the Celtic name for oak, daur, is the origin of the word door. At the center of the world, you would, according to myths, find an oaken door. It is the doorway to the Otherworld, the realm of Fairy. Dryad’s Rejoice, another melodic winner, describes the World tree in Greek mythology, from which all of humanity came from. Of Badges and Crowns is about how oak trees and leaves have been used in flags, insignias, crowns, and coats of armor thought-out time. It is fascinating how Fendrich weaves all of this into her music in a deeply meaningful way, while her vocal gives it a human touch.
Under Her Canopy also features vocals by Fendrich’s daughter Talia Valdez. It is a song about the sacred bond between mother and daughter, while the oak is a symbol of female energy. It is breathtakingly beautiful, divine. It is rare in the New Age music realm to encounter such brilliant vocals, making me hope that this might be the beginning of something big. We sure could use more vocals in this part of the forest.
About the title track, Fendrich says: “I believe that if the wisdom and strength of the oak were to emit a color, it would be sapphire blue. It has been seen as a color of protection from harm or illness and a guard against envy.” The conclusion is incredible; a worthy title track indeed – before Carry the Oak rounds off the album. It is about how a piece of oak could become a talisman and protect against evil. Each time I reach this stage on the album, I feel that my respect for the mighty oak has grown even more. That is the definition of a successful concept album in my book.
In conclusion: Sapphire Oak by Sharon Fendrich communicates a deep-rooted sense of spirituality and strength. The sacred tree seems near, almost close enough to touch, thanks to Fendrich’s masterful compositions and well-crafted arrangements. I can’t help thinking that each note resembles a leaf, and each song is a branch – and the complete album is the oak itself; mighty and almost magnetic, as presented on the beautiful cover artwork.
Even though it is a concept album, I find it fairly easy to distinguish the theme from the music itself. The oak symbolism is a separate level of meaning. Indeed, even without thinking a single thought about the oak, the listener will sense the vast “room of sound” that the album communicates. It is a place to breathe, relax and meditate. It is also great for reading, studying or creative work.
As with Red Sky Prairie, I found myself asking; is Sapphire Oak the perfect New Age music album? Its level of excellence is easily on par with Loreena McKennitt, Secret Garden, Enya, 2002 or anyone else of this genre’s biggest names. But then it hit me that it is better to stop comparing the music of Sharon Fendrich to anyone else and simply acknowledge the fact that I need to make room in my music collection for her future albums – something I only do for the best of the best.
Sapphire Oak is, in short, a celebration of strength and power not to be missed.