Lara St. John is a powerhouse. There is no missing her energy output and expressive outpourings, as she produces emotive sounds from her violin across a wide swathe of genres and styles.
Music lovers, who go along to the Beersheba Performing Arts Center this Saturday evening (9 p.m.), can look forward to a quality and, no doubt, emotive display of classical instrumental mastery, when St. John joins forces with the Israel Sinfonietta Beer Sheva, and its conductor-musical director Nir Kabaretti.
The concert is the last in the Sinfonietta’s current season and it is no coincidence that the soloist is a woman. Kabaretti has made a habit of inviting female stars of the global classical music arena to perform with the orchestra.
And it is about time St. John returned to these climes. She comes back older, surely wiser, and with a far higher profile on the international scene. “This is actually my first time with an orchestra in Israel,” comes the chirpy reply when I ask if this is her debut with the Israel Sinfonietta Beer Sheva. Her previous foray here was way back in 1999, when she was on the roster of the Voice of Music Festival up at Kfar Blum in the Upper Galilee. “I only did some recitals and stuff,” she notes.
Saturday’s agenda features works by Bach, Beethoven and 47-year-old Israeli composer, conductor and educator Avner Dorman. The latter is a piece that goes by the name of Nigunim (Tunes) which, in view of Dorman’s oeuvre to date, despite being the product of the 21st century, will, no doubt, make for a basically melodic and communicative offering.
While the majority of the audience in Beersheba will be hearing the Dorman work for the first time, it appears that St. John has been there and done that before. “I did the premiere in Montreal, in 2018, actually with an Israeli conductor called Yoav Talmi. We did it in Prague and Warsaw, too, and this will be the Israeli premiere.”
One might have thought that Dorman’s composition would have received an earlier airing in his own country. Plans were, in fact, in place for that to happen at a previous juncture but the pandemic shenanigans kept the idea on ice for a while. “Covid kind of made it later,” St. John explains. “It was supposed to be [played in Israel] a couple of years ago. But now, it’s finally happening and it’s great.”
The violinist was more than happy to share some of her inside knowledge about the work. “It’s called Nigunim, which obviously means chants or songs. Basically, he’s taken a lot of traditional modes, like “Mi Shebarach” (prayer for the sick), and out of those modes he’s created his own tunes.” Working off oft-employed material can help in the user-friendly department. “They feel familiar. You kind of feel, wait! I know that tune. You think you’ve heard them before, but you haven’t. He made them up but they are based on the modal structures of so many klezmer tunes and some liturgical stuff, I think used for the first movement.”
ALTHOUGH SHE is not of the faith, St. John is no stranger to Jewish musical patterns. Over the past close to three decades, the London, Ontario-born, New York-resident violinist has cast her staged performance and recording net far and wide. “I made an album called Shiksa because, frankly, it’s not wrong,” she laughs. “I am, in fact, the eponymous shiksa (female gentile). To some people it might be a derogatory name, but I think it’s kind of cute. I thought I may as well just own it,” she chuckles.
Still, there is much more to the record than just Jewish music. “On that album with [jazz pianist] Matt Herskowitz, we did a lot of different stuff,” she continues. “We did a lot of Roma stuff, stuff from the Caucasus. Basically, just timewise, the most pieces on the album just happen to be of Jewish origin. So, I thought, let’s just call it Shiksa! It’s not untrue.”
Clearly the classically trained violinist – she started out on the instrument at the age of 2 – has absolutely no qualms about mixing it with folks from outside the strict confines of her more regimented initial discipline. “Bach was certainly a great improviser,” she states. “He would do it every single weekend in the church. The amount of stuff he simply didn’t bother to write down. Can you imagine if only there were recording devices back then,” she exclaims. “With that in mind, Matt and I just talked with various composers, and we did some of it ourselves. We decided to bring some of these old tunes to the concert stage.”
As far as St. John is concerned, delineations are there to be straddled, if not leapt across in a single joyous bound. “We’ll do, I don’t know, the Kreutzer Sonata [by Beethoven] and then we’ll go into The Shiksa! Show. We do a lot of what I called “Gershkowitzes,” because Matt is Herskowitz and he does a lot of Gershwin arrangements. Our recitals tend to be very varied, in many ways.” There’s more. “I also have a background in traditional Celtic old time, sort of more folk fiddling, as well. Occasionally, we do some of that – a little Canadian Celtic medley.”
With such an eclectic, non-discriminatory approach St. John appeals to wide swaths of the music loving public. She doesn’t believe in a musical class-based structure and is happy to play across the board, have fun and, possibly, learn a thing or two while she’s at it. “I find a lot of classical musicians to be just brilliant at what they do but they only do one thing, they only want to do one thing.
For me, all music can be learned from. For example, I was once in Chicago and I went to an incredible blues bar on the South Side, and somehow that taught me something. And I was playing in Louisiana and I met a bunch of Cajuns. I went to their gig and they came to my gig, and I learned something. It’s so interesting. I think it gives you more facets.”
While St. John is hardly likely to introduce a slot of some blues riffs into her renditions of Bach’s Violin Concerto in E major, Beethoven’s much-loved Pastoral Symphony or, for that matter, the Dorman work, Saturday evening’s audience in Beersheba should enjoy some richly-layered readings.
For tickets and more information, call 08-626-6422 and visit: www.isb7.co.il.