At La Scena, we rather enjoy NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts because they’re always well curated and quite often line up with what goes on in the festival circuit. Today’s video of the day features Canadian violinist Lara St. John who will be performing later tonight at the Ottawa Chamberfest.
Born in London to two educators, St. John began violin at age two and made her orchestral debut two years later. Something of a precocious talent, it could be said. Now forty-years into her career, St. John is now a powerful virtuoso performer and “owner of Ancalagon record label and the world’s cutest iguana.”
In 1999, dissatisfied towards the arts industry, St. John founded Ancalgon, named after her iguana, to retake complete control over her recordings. In a few years, a concerto CD would land at number on iTunes classical and spend weeks there. The label would continue to expand with a World Music Division and a Juno in 2011 for Best Classical Album (Soloist(s) with Large Ensemble). Amid a wide selection of classical and chamber discs, her most recent album Shiksa is a fiery collection of piano-violin folk duets with Matt Heskowitz.
Meaning gentile woman, Shiksa is St. John’s appropriated title for her place in the gyspsy musical clime she so loves. The tracks on Shiksa stem from a varied font of Eastern European and Middle Eastern folk music seem to be all flash, yet display an honest and poignant affection for non-traditional western instrumental music. St. John has in fact been collecting music from those regions since a trip to Hungary at age eleven. Her own bricolaged history and curation of a personal library resonates on the album’s interpretations of Jewish folksongs as they’ve been altered by the Jewish Diaspora.
With a cold open, the duo dive into “Czardashian Rhapsody,” a heady and rabble-rousing mash-up of violin classic “Czardash” and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 where the piano and violin duel for technical supremacy. In the concert, St. John channels a zest not so much seen in folk. Bow flying, head-banging, fingers racing, the spectacle itself is an astonishing display of dexterity and stamina. In the music video for “Czardashian Rhapsody,” St. John actually plays beside a burning fire and on a truck driving on a highway. To abate the flames, the duo arrests the audience with the pangs of the Armenian troubadour song, “Sari Siroun Yar.” The mood set, St. John returns for the final piece with what she describes as “basically Romanian tricks and turns and fun stuff.” Perhaps the best way to describe this is that the pianist spends a good ten seconds staring at her, mouth gaping, as St. John plays a scorching passage of double stops that run up and down the violin.
Lara St. John performs songs from Shiksa tonight at the Ottawa Chamberfest. Click here for more information.
Lara St. John: NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert