Lara St. John was born in Ontario and now lives in New York City, but in her heart she’s an eastern European—a fact that was brought home to the violinist during her first visit to Budapest, when she was still a preteen.
“I was 12, I think, maybe 11, and I was just amazed,” she recalls in a telephone interview from her home. “There was music pouring out of every window and every restaurant, and I almost thought to myself, ‘Jeez, have I been kidnapped by some white-bread Canadian family, or something?’ Like, ‘Was I born here?’ ”
As far as we know, St. John has not had her DNA tested for traces of Jewish, Slavic, or Romani ancestry. But she’s certainly made good on her fascination with the music of Hungary and points east, first with her 1997 release, Gypsy, and now with her even more thrilling Shiksa, from 2015. Shiksa, like her upcoming Music on Main recital, benefits from the presence of jazz pianist and Bach scholar Matt Herskowitz, who does have an ancestral connection to the region and whose background in improvised music adds yet another dimension to St. John’s eclectic approach.
“I’ve learned a lot,” she says happily, citing Herskowitz’s “ungodly technique” and willingness to indulge her passion for speed. And she points to her 2018 touring program as indicative of the range of idioms they can tackle convincingly. On the bill will be four pieces from Shiksa, including Nagilara, Herskowitz’s extroverted arrangement of the Jewish standard “Hava Nagila”, and Armenian-Canadian composer Serouj Kradjian’s gorgeous Sari Siroun Yar. But the two will also tackle Béla Bartók’s early-modernist Sonata No. 2, and Ludwig van Beethoven’s immortal Violin Sonata No. 9, the so-called “Kreutzer Sonata”. (“So called” because Rodolphe Kreutzer, its dedicatee, disliked it intensely and refused to play it.)
“It’s very interesting to come to these sonatas with somebody who’s coming at them for the first time,” St. John says. “I’ve known the Bartók 2 and the ‘Kreutzer’ for a very long time, and I’ve never been very happy with any partners I’ve done them with. And that’s why I was sort of excited to go, ‘Hey, Matt: come on, let’s do this. There are some great Shiksa shows coming up, and that’s fine, but let’s make sure we’ve got some bread and butter here. Some meat and potatoes.’ ”
She laughs, and says that their unfettered interpretation of the Beethoven piece, at least, might ruffle some purists’ feathers—but only, to her way of thinking, because they’re being truer to Ludwig van’s intent than those who stick purely to the score.
“Matt’s into trying everything,” she explains, “and every once in a while he’ll just be like, ‘You know what? He probably would have done this.’ Obviously, Beethoven deserves to be on a pedestal, but not to do things the way he would have done doesn’t make any sense. And we think that sometimes people do exactly what is written because improvisation, classical improvisation, is a lost art.”
Beethoven, she points out, was famous in his lifetime for his extemporaneous variations. And Franz Liszt, who often played the Violin Sonata No. 9 after its composer’s death, “just made up half of it”.
“But it’s not like we’re going to go into Dave Brubeck, or something like that,” St. John adds, laughing again. “It’s going to be stylistically of the time.”
Music on Main presents Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz at the Orpheum Annex on Tuesday (September 25).