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.
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: