Kawarsky: Spoon Hanging from My Nose (CD review)

The Music of J.A. Kawarsky. Various orchestras and conductors. Navona Records NV6194.

If you are like me, you may not be familiar with the name of American composer, conductor, and music professor Jay A. Kawarsky (b. 1959). However, the title and cover art for this first album devoted entirely to his compositions and arrangements, "Spoon Hanging from My Nose," was too hard to resist.

Perhaps Kawarsky's most famous composition, Prayers for Bobby, premiered in 1996 with actress Marlo Thomas narrating and has been performed many times since. Unfortunately, it is not among the pieces on the present album. Nevertheless, it was a fortuitous decision on my part to take a chance and listen to the disc; the music it presents is pleasing, creative, and diverting.

The program consists of four major Kawarsky selections. The first is called Fastidious Notes for solo alto saxophone and chamber orchestra, here performed by Jonathan Helton, alto sax, and the Chicago Arts Orchestra led by Javier Mendoza. As Kawarsky wrote the piece for saxophonist Helton, we have to imagine Helton's interpretation being definitive. It's certainly authoritative and immaculately played. In fact, the whole work is easily accessible, and, as Kawarsky notes, if there are any hints of other composers in the music, well, imitation is the highest form of flattery.

The second item is the longest, a series of eighteen selections: the Brahms Liebeslieder Waltzes, originally written in 1868-69 for vocal quartet and piano four hands and here orchestrated by Kawarsky for multiple voices (the Arizona Choir) and ten instruments. These pieces are really quite beautiful, quite lyrical and lilting renditions, and Brahms is, after all, Brahms. It's charming.

J.A. Kawarsky
The third item on the agenda is called And We All Waited, written for orchestra alone. Kawarsky calls it a reaction to the lack of any new legislation or regulation after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. The Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra performs the work under the direction of Maestro Petr Vronsky. Again Kawarsky provides hints of other composers, in this case he says Nielsen, Shostakovich, and Reicha, but I also hear Sibelius in there. In any case. the music is not unexpectedly the most somber and earnest on the program. Still, it is easy to listen to because the composer eschews most of the modern conventions that drive audiences to distraction, even Kawarsky's work does get a tad raucous at times.

The final item Kawarsky titled Episodes for piano and orchestra, and it celebrates the 75th anniversary of Westminster Choir College of Rider University, New Jersey. It is performed by the Saint Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra, with Vladimir Lande, conductor, and Peter Laul. piano. It has kind of a jazzy beat, all up-tempo and rhythmic in the opening section and alternating with a more-serene landscape as the piece goes on. The most obvious borrowing the composer incorporates here is from Mussorgsky, and it works nicely. The soloist and orchestra afford the whole work a dignified presentation.

Producers John Page, Brad Michel, Vit Muzik, Alexei Barashkin, and Bob Lord, with engineers John McCartney, Brad Michel, Ales Dvorak, Jan Kosulic, and Alexei Barashkin recorded the music at Nichols Concert Hall, Chicago; Tucson Symphony Center, Tucson, AZ; Reduta Hall, Olomouc, Czech Republic; and Studio 1, House of Radio, St. Petersburg, Russia in 2016-2018.

The various producers and engineers recorded each of the selections in different venues with differing ensembles, so there are some small, inevitable differences in sound. Overall, though, the sonics are smooth and fairly dynamic, with good depth and width qualities. While the opening solo piano is a bit too close for ultimate realism, it helps the performance by emphasizing the instrument. (The closing piano is better balanced.) The choir in the waltzes sounds particularly appealing, since so often choir recordings can be overly bright or edgy. This one is very lifelike. Detailing is a tad on the soft side yet pleasing on the ear, especially as the high end is so well extended. Perhaps not absolute audiophile, but close enough.

Besides, as I say, the album title is hard to resist.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa