The dynamic Lara St. John opens SoBe Arts’ festival with a populist program

By Lawrence Budmen

Violinist Lara St. John opened the SoBe Arts' American string festival Tuesday night in Miami Beach.

The American Masterworks String Festival opened Tuesday night with a dynamic recital by violinist Lara St. John at the intimate Little Stage Theater in Miami Beach.This first of a five-concert series of America music presented by the SoBe Institute of the Arts concentrated on the populist side of contemporary composition and transcriptions. (Future programs promise an edgier side of Americana.)

St. John opened with John Corigliano’s Sonata for Violin and Piano (1963), the program’s most ambitious offering. This early four-movement score predates the Mahlerian angst of Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1, and the acerbic energy of his Pulitzer Prize-winning Symphony No. 2. The sonata is the work of a talented young composer who is finding his musical voice.

A virtuoso tour de force, the score is highly attractive on its own terms. The opening movement is jazzy and angular, the high harmonics calling for great skill and technical agility. A lyrical theme at the second movement’s outset becomes sinewy and bristling, presaging the extended cadenza with occasional piano interjections. The jaunty theme of the finale recalls the tunes of  British pops composer Eric Coates but the ensuing variations and pyrotechnics are the stuff of daredevil bravura.

St. John is a musician of impressive skill and artistry. Throwing caution to the wind, her fearless technique, large, plush tone and dead-on intonation — even in the instrument’s highest register — carried the performance to an exciting finish. The speed and showmanship of St. John’s pyrotechnics at the sonata’s conclusion won cheers from the small but enthusiastic audience. Composer-pianist  Martin Kennedy, one of St. John’s frequent collaborators, was a consummate partner, playing with comparable concentration and volatile intensity.

Following the Corigliano sonata, Martin Van Brink’s arrangement of Songs of Stephen Foster almost seemed like an encore. A throwback to late 19th-century showpieces by such violinists as Maud Powell and Henri Vieuxtemps based on popular music of the day, the Foster medley displayed St. John’s high speed-dynamism in the variations on Oh! Susanna.

Kennedy’s own Trivial Pursuits (2010) is a well-crafted vignette combining blues and ragtime that seemed tailor-made for St. John’s combustible style. Two Gershwin songs transcribed by Jonathan Tunick brought a cafe-style version of But Not for Me and a romp through Sweet and Low Down that mixed the jazzy slides of Stephane Grappelli with fiddle fireworks a la Paganini.

Freilach No. 19 by jazz composer-pianist Matt Herskowitz spiked a Silesian melody of ruminative yearning with wild keyboard riffs and  toe tapping klezmer rhythms.

The American premiere of the Russian Evenings Suite by Gene Pritsker proved less appealing. Russian pop and folk tunes are treated to soupy arrangements in this three-part work, though the concluding pyrotechnical sprint through Under a Moscow Night was exhilarating. St. John and Kennedy played these collections of short pieces with terrific musicianship and charismatic abandon.

Lara St. John’s concert proved a lively beginning for what will clearly be an enterprising week of events on Miami Beach.

The American Masterworks String Festival continues 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Little Stage Theater, SoBe Institute of the Arts in Miami Beach, with violist Kim Kashkashian playing works by Alan Hovhaness, Zhou Long, Stephen Paulus, Vincent Persichetti, Christopher Theofanidis, Elliot Carter and Aaron Copland. 305-674-9220


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Wed Dec 7, 2011
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