Violinist Lara St. John brings aggressive virtuosity to offbeat program

By David Fleshler

Lara St. John performed a wide-ranging program for Sunday Afternoons of Music at Gusman Concert Hall.

Judging only from the printed program, the most conventional part of Lara St. John’s violin recital would be the opening work, César Franck’s well-known Sonata for Violin and Piano.

But her take on the piece was so bizarre that it set the stage for what was to be a highly unusual concert Sunday at the University of Miami’s Gusman Hall. St. John’s performance was all extremes—a wispy pianissimo one moment, bow-crunching fortissimo the next. No melody was simply allowed to sing, but was always going someplace—-a sudden hush, a volcanic crescendo. Most of the time it was loud. Rather than soaring, melodies blared.

The Franck sonata has moments when aggressive playing is called for, such as the second movement Allegro. But her approach was so unvaryingly strident that those moments didn’t sound much different from the rest of the piece. As gifted a virtuoso as St. John can clearly do whatever she wants on the violin—as she demonstrated in the technical fireworks that were to follow—but in her hands the lyricism of Franck’s work was lost.

The rest of the concert, given as part of the Sunday Afternoons of Music series, consisted of works written for her by various composers, drawn from the folk traditions of the United States and Europe. In these works, many of which made extreme technical demands and called for a faintly uncivilized approach to playing, St .John seemed more at home.

First, she went back stage and changed into a pair of heavy, chunky-heeled shoes for John Corigliano’s Stomp, which required her to stomp her foot to the music. Inspired by bluegrass and jazz, the work was a more effective vehicle for her, partly because its hard-driving virtuosity suited her style and partly because few people in the audience had other performances of it with which to compare her interpretation.

Like most works for unaccompanied violin, it relies on speed and the use of two or three strings at once to avoid the dullness of a single tone, aside from some quiet, meditative passages that gave an improvisatory feel, as if the violinist was deciding what to play next. With rapid-fire fiddle-style music and dissonant bow crunches, it made an effective, modernistic showpiece.

After that, it was off to eastern and southern Europe, where St. John has traveled extensively and made a point of hearing folk music. Like some of Bartók’s folk-based works, these pieces had a more authentic, earthy feel than the slick, urbanized Gypsy and Hungarian music written by 19th century composers. But like those old-fashioned works, the ones on St. John’s program allowed her to show off—-with double and triple stops, runs to the very end of the fingerboard and her bow bouncing rapidly from string to string—all performed with a fearless aggressiveness.

Pianist Martin Kennedy ably accompanied her, and in the Franck gave a much straighter performance, smoothly handling the difficult piano part.

Five Ladino Songs by David Ludwig gave St. John another chance for unaccompanied playing. Tuneful and complex, with some going way too fast to imagine anyone singing them, they made effective use of the violin’s resources, although this was more than enough unaccompanied playing for one recital.

The concert saw the world premiere of two Greek songs, The Pain Will Find Us and My Love Awakes, by John Psathas, a New Zealand composer born to Greek parents. Alternately dreamy and manic, with memorable melodies and stern technical demands on the performer, these could easily be effective substitutes on recital programs for the showpieces that have been played for 100 years.

Her pianist composed the next work, Trivial Pursuits, a work that begins—presumably trivially—with a simple ascending scale on the piano, into which the violinist interjects jarringly contrasting tones and begins a complex dialogue with the piano, until the scale returns and the work ends. Of the works that followed, perhaps the most effective was a Serbian folk song called Kolo, which St. John said she learned from an old man in a Serbian bar. Opening with a rollicking melody, it became a series of quick variations, with St. John playing at high speed and dead-on accuracy.

As an encore, she performed Kreisler’s Schön Rosmarin.

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Sun Mar 10, 2013
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