Violin virtuoso Lara St. John never tires of The Four Seasons

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      It's no big surprise when accomplished musicians like top-ranked violinist Lara St. John describe how they started playing at an early age. But it's still a little hard to believe that St. John first laid her hands on the instrument when she was just two years old.

      "It's a little crazy," she admits on the phone from her New York City home, "and of course it can not have sounded good. But I mean I played my first concerto when I was four years old, and made my European debut at nine, so things went really quickly very early in my life. And then things have just kind of continued along those lines. I basically travel around the world and play music."

      The night before our chat St. John flew in from Istanbul, where she was doing a concert, and before that she was performing in South America. She'll continue her travels when she treks out to Vancouver to perform with the Vancouver Symphony at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on December 17 and 18.

      Looking back on her childhood musical experiences, St. John explains that her starting super-young had more to do with her stay-at-home mom needing a way to keep her and her older brother occupied, than hoping they'd become virtuoso violinists one day.

      "My brother was four, and I was two-and-a-half, and she was getting really sick of having us running around and underfoot," says St. John. "So these violin lessons came to town—this was in London, Ontario—and she sent my brother to one, and he came home with a little violin. And I was just one of those sisters that was like, 'There's no way my brother is gonna get something that I don't have.' So I got an even smaller one, and then it just went from there."

      Although St. John took to the instrument very early, it wasn't as if she had any violin heroes she was trying to emulate. Although she does profess an early fondness for Fritz Kreisler—"I remember my parents had records of his, just such charming playing"—she didn't grow up idolizing masters of the instrument.

      "I have heroes, but they're not necessarily violin [players]. I was, and still am, a big Glenn Gould fan. And also there's a lot of singers that I'm a big fan of. I mean, 'cause basically—I wouldn't have known this then—but we're basically just an imitation of the human voice, right. We can go faster and we can go higher, but it's all about the voice. So for me I learned a lot from keyboard players—like organists—but especially singers."

      Quickly developing a fierce talent on violin, St. John took the top prize in several competitions, and in 1997 won the use of the 1702 Lyall Stradivarius for two years from the Canada Council for the Arts and an anonymous donor.

      "So I played on that for a little while," she recalls, "and then the same donor had this Guadagnini come through the shop—Heinl & Company of Toronto—and for me it was almost like we had been separated and now we're back together. It was like, 'Oh my god, this is my fiddle!.' Anyway, it took a little while, but I gave up the Stradivarius in order to have this Guadagnini. And people were kind of like, 'Well why would you do that? The Stradivarius is worth twice as much?' And it's like, 'I don't care anything about what it's worth, I care how it sounds!' So it no longer belongs to the anonymous donor, it is now mine, but it took me 23 years to make it mine, so there ya go."

      That 1779 "El Salabue" Guadagnini of St. John's will be the one she'll play at the Chan Centre while performing Antonio Vivaldi's iconic The Four Seasons, a piece she's played numerous times but never gotten tired of, either as a performer or a listener.

      "Sometimes familiarity doesn't breed contempt," she points out. "I mean, I think that a lot of people are just like, 'Oh, I heard that when I was doing this'. It's so familiar. People enjoy just going to hear the whole entire thing. And obviously they're based on stanzas, on various poems, so what Vivaldi did, which I think is super interesting, is he used the string instruments to imitate, for example, birds, to imitate heat. In the second movement of 'Spring' there's a little dog barking, while the shepherd sleeps under a tree. Like all these little things that he manages to evoke. It's so descriptive, and I think that that's really fun for people. They're like, 'Oh, these are the cuckoos now, it got really hot!' and 'Oh, here comes the storm!' This kinda thing."

      The way St. John raves about the powerful effect of The Four Seasons, you'd think Vivaldi might be one of her all-time favorite composers. But she views the Italian Baroque musician as more of a one-hit-wonder.

      "These 'Seasons' are sort of his particular hit," she says, "and also I think it's basically the best thing he wrote. I don't know why he didn't write anything else like this, because it's so much further ahead than his other concertos. Like he wrote, I don't know, hundreds of violin concertos, but none of them even stand close to this one."

      So if Vivaldi doesn't really do it for St. John, who would her Number One classical guy be?

      "That's so hard to say," she replies. "I mean obviously we all have to sort of bend at the knee for Johann Sebastian Bach, but I'm also a big fan of a lot of Beethoven, and a Stravinsky person. It's kind of like if you think of visual art, you can have a favourite painter, but maybe not every painting they do is your favourite. So it's a little bit like that for me. And I would not say that I gravitate towards the romantic period; I'm not a big Brahms fan, or Schumann, or anything like that.

      "I would much rather skip directly over to 20th-century," she adds with a laugh.

      Lara St. John joins the Vancouver Symphony for Vivaldi's Four Seasons at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on December 17 and 18.