The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Mar 07, 2013

Violinist's recital partly a composer's travelogue

Posted by Gregory Stepanich

Lara St. John. Photo by Martin Kennedy

Some new music is coming to the Sunday Afternoons of Music series this weekend with a recital by the fine Canadian violinist Lara St. John, who will play a fresh-off-the-stocks work by the New Zealand composer John Psathas.

The son of Greek immigrants, Psathas wrote music for the Athens Olympics of 2004 and has evoked that heritage often in his music, including the new piece, Two Greek Songs. In an email, St. John said the songs are “heaps of fun,” and “very effective.” One is based on the traditional song O Ilios, and the other on a Greek Gypsy tune, she said.

The British pianist Martin Kennedy, who is accompanying St. John, will be represented by his piece Trivial Pursuits on the program, which primarily offers new music written for the violinist: John Corigliano’s Stomp; Five Ladino Songs, by David Ludwig; and Nagilara, by Matt Herskowitz. Also on the program is the traditional Serbian dance song Kolo, and a Mike Atkinson arrangement of a Romanian folksong, Ca La Breaza.

Music of a wide variety of cultures has been an interest of St. John’s since her teens, when she graduated from the Curtis Institute at age 16 and promptly decamped for the land then known as the Soviet Union.

“I learned so much there. I learned about songs, about Gypsy culture; it was an incredible year. I’ve never had anything like it to this day,” she told me last November. “I suddenly realized a couple years ago that I’d started collecting (songs) wherever I was, in Armenia, in Georgia, more recently in Istanbul, in Romania, Serbia – all these places. If I had friends, I’d learn songs. I even have old tapes of people singing (traditional) songs.”

All told, she’s collected tens of thousands of tunes. “For a New York apartment, that’s quite a lot to have,” St. John said. She also realized that she knew a good many composers, and the die was cast for a long-running project of new pieces based on this material.

“I’ve been sending each composer five to 10 tunes, from which they pick two. And early on, it became evident to me that the composers tended to stick to their own backgrounds. Pretty much everyone’s being doing — where they come from.”

She’s careful to point out that the new music, while drawing its inspiration from the source tunes, consists of “actual compositions” and not arrangements.

“’Nagilara,’ for example. Matt Herskowitz is a jazzer, very chromatic, almost Cecil Taylor-esque,” she said. “And ‘Nagilara’ is based on ‘Hava Nagila,’ but you actually can’t tell until halfway through the piece. But when you hear it for the second time, you’re like, ‘Oh, my God, there it is, it’s jumping between the violin and the piano.’ What he did with it was spectacularly original.”

The concert opens with the familiar Violin Sonata of Cesar Franck, which the composer wrote as a wedding present in 1886 for his fellow Belgian, Eugene Ysaÿe, a great violinist and fine composer who performed it that very day and championed it for the rest of his life.

St. John is an original and risk-taking player herself. Her reading of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with the South Florida Symphony earlier this season was almost klezmer-like in the slow movement, and it added a raw folk beauty to the music that I’ve not heard before.

Her recital is set for 4 p.m. Sunday at the University of Miami’s Gusman Hall. Tickets are $35; call 305-271-7150 or visit

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