Chatelaine, June 1, 1999
She’s difficult. She’s a perfectionist. And she’s a canny businesswoman who uses her looks to sell CDs. But most of all, Lara St. John is a violin virtuoso whose passion is only eclipsed by her style. As the London, Ont., native told writer Shawna Wagman, “the energy for music and the energy for sex come from the same place”
The producers sitting in the recording studio were happy with the first take. They were happy with the next three takes too. So when 24-year-old classical violinist Lara St. John wanted to try Bach’s “Chaconne” one more time, they didn’t see the point. St. John insisted and, characteristically, got her way. With a facsimile of the original score written in Bach’s own hand, lights dimmed, St. John began playing the piece one more time. “My assistant and I were in the booth and he began sobbing,” says Kathy Geisler, producer and director of Well-Tempered Productions. “We were all so incredibly moved by her playing. Nothing was held back.” That last take was the one that made it onto St. John’s 1996 debut CD, Bach Works for Violin Solo.
Just 27, St. John has been praised for her energy and invention. She’s also been criticized for having too much personality, for being difficult, stubborn and, well, too willing to use her sexuality as a sales tool. But it’s a sales tool that works, especially as a way of exposing herself- and her music – to younger, less classically inclined music consumers. Her Bach CD, which featured an apparently naked St. John holding her violin across her chest, ruffled feathers in classical-music circles. It also sold more than 30,000 copies – this is no mean feat considering that classical superstar Yo-Yo Ma’s CD, Inspired by Bach, has sold just 14,500 copies since its release.
St. John certainly isn’t the only young classical performer trying to attract audiences of her own generation. Some – such as British violin bad-boy Kennedy (formerly Nigel Kennedy) and seductive wild-child Vanessa-Mae – adopt rock-star images and stretch musical boundaries by mixing rock music into their repertoire. St. John, whose performances have been compared to the likes of Jimi Hendrix, has rejected that route. “I think what people don’t know is that the great classical works have this passion and pathos and energy and sadness and gladness in such extremes that rock and pop can’t even begin to touch.” Nobody’s immune to sex, says St. John, least of all composers and musicians. “For me, the energy for music and the energy for sex come from the same place.” And while all that sex talk may have critics hot and bothered, it’s clear that Lara St. John is going to follow that energy wherever it takes her.
Violins are called fiddles in rural Ontario where St. John’s mother, Sharie, grew up. By the time Lara was born in London, Ont., 16 months after her brother, Scott, the sounds of country fiddling shared the family’s turntable with Elvis and the Beatles. Father Ken had a guitar and a tin ear. Instead of music, he taught high school French and Spanish and coached basketball, while Sharie was a stay-at-home mom.
It doesn’t sound like a home that would produce two toddlers who played classical violin with perfect pitch and outstanding technique. But Sharie had heard about the Suzuki Method of teaching tots violin at Scott’s Montessori school. Named for Japanese violin teacher, Shinichi Suzuki, the technique taught children music based on the premise that kids could learn to play Bach before learning any notes, just as they speak fluently before they can read. Sharie bought each toddler a miniature violin and stood back as her kids’ exercises turned into a full-fledged affair with the fiddle.
Both children developed skill and talent quickly and in the early days, they often performed together, touting internationally and cleaning up at music competitions. Scott was asthmatic and, though older, was smaller than his sister, so many assumed Lara was older and expected her to perform at a higher level. As five- and six-year-olds, the siblings beat out 18-year-old competitors. Of course, competition between the two was inevitable. They studied with separate teachers, refused to play the same music and soon, their repertoires became as distinct as their temperaments, though Scott says he has always admired his sister’s strong will, especially the way it translates to her music: “Whether playing Bach or Gypsy music, Lara’s not going to do anything half way,” he says. Scott preferred the romantic and late classical periods while Lara showed a strong affinity for 20th-century composers and a strong dislike for Brahms. Even today, she refuses to perform Brahms in public, though her musical training dictated she learn every piece. “I feel just extreme sexual repression in all his music,” she says with a laugh. “It seems as if it’s going somewhere and it never quite does. I just can’t deal with that almost-but-not-quite thing.” (Even as a child, St. John used to run from the room when Brahms was played.)
And Scott was likable – a word rarely applied to his sister. Whether dealing with teachers, judges or peers, Lara gained a reputation as being stubborn and difficult. Conductor Voltr Ivonoffski recalls being startled the first time Lara “put her foot down,” demanding that the piece they were rehearsing be played slower. She was five. As a teen, St. John scolded judges after they scored her poorly in a competition and even today challenges music reviewers who critique her style. It’s not that she’s a diva, say friends and colleagues; it’s indignation borne of her fierce confidence that she’s playing the composers’ music the way she’s meant to.
While classical music has a stereotypical association with wealth and privilege, keeping up with the expense of specialized lessons took a toll on the single-income St. John family. They bought secondhand clothes and beans and rice became mealtime staples. When Scott, age 14, was accepted tuition-free to the Curtis Institute of Music, a renowned school in Philadelphia, Pa., Sharie St. John moved with her children to the United States for a short time, while Ken stayed in London, working to support the family. St. John studied violin privately in Philadelphia for a year until she was also accepted at Curtis. At 17, she became one of Curtis’s youngest graduates. (Scott remained on the traditional path toward a career as a concert performer, studying at Curtis until he was 20 and then moving to New York where, in 1994, he founded the Millennium Chamber Music Society.)
While many of her peers packed their bags for New York’s famous Juilliard School of the arts, St. John arranged an exchange to the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow. When she learned her music teacher had defected, she seized the opportunity to put down the violin, travel around the Soviet Union and experience life outside music for the first time. (In Russia, the few hundred dollars her parents were able to send her for the year was a comparative fortune.) St. John speaks of the time with passion – and an irritating vagueness that reflects the romantic lifestyle in which she was immersed. (That romantic-fantasy side of St. John shows up in her taste in books and movies: she’s read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings at least 15 times and is a huge Star Wars fan.) There were dangerous adventures, travels without visas, dealings on the black market and visits to the fabled Gypsy caravans on the outskirts of town, she says. It sounds like a movie cliche – the dark days and cold nights, the excessive drinking, dancing and endlessly fabulous music.
When the year-long exchange was over, St. John followed friends to England, where she received a grant to study at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. That Christmas, her father died of cancer, and after a brief trip home for the funeral, St. John returned to England. Without money from home, St. John, then 19, found herself living in a cold, rat-infested apartment in East London, unable to work legally and, for the first time, completely on her own. She found work tending bar to support herself while continuing her studies. It’s a time in her life that she won’t speak about in detail, though she refers to it as a “breakdown period,” where her musical confidence waned and her playing suffered. “England was kind of a horrible experience,” she says before firmly changing the subject.
Two years later, she moved to New York City, where she studied music at Mannes College (more to fulfill her visa requirements for living in the U.S. than for instruction), supported by a Canada Council for the Arts grant supplemented by bartending money. She describes her path from studying music to a career in music as a fluke. “I was like a little kid. I didn’t know anything about the business aspect.” She was introduced to record producer Geisler at a party. “I was trying to find artists who felt as I did, that classical music had to be marketed to a broader audience in order to preserve the music for future generations,” says Geisler, who was happy to discover that St. John shared her views – and was also a talented musician. The pair teamed up, with St. John’s Bach Works for Violin Solo as the result.
While the music was given high marks by reviewers, traditional classicists were appalled by the cover image. “If Lara St. John’s way with Bach is so great, why does she gaze so adolescently nude at us on her CD cover?” wrote D.T. Baker in The Edmonton Journal. To St. John, the photo captured the intimacy she felt with the music. (And her mom liked it – she has the poster on her living room wall.) Still, Tower Records stores in Seattle refused to stock the album for several months.
The response didn’t deter St. John from featuring an equally seductive pose on her second CD. Called Gypsy, it was a selection of some of her favourite Gypsy-inspired pieces, including the fiendishly difficult “Carmen,” Fantasie. Since that recording, St. John’s concert career has been in full swing, as she’s performed more than 70 concerts a year across Europe and North America. (There was also a short-lived marriage in 1998, which St. John refuses to discuss.) It’s not all glamour, though: to save money, St. John crashes at friends’ houses while on tour and sometimes makes and distributes flyers promoting her recitals herself, and even has her friends help sell CDs after some concerts.
In the intimate Recital Hall at the Ford Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto, St. John saunters across the stage after the intermission, alone. Under a single spotlight, she lifts the 1702 Stradivarius violin (loaned to her for two years by the Canada Council and an anonymous donor) to her chin. The crowd, filled with faces young and old, falls silent. Her body moves in slow seduction, her limber six-foot frame swaying as her fingers dance across the strings. In the audience tonight is conductor Voltr Ivonoffski – the one who had been told by a five-year-old Lara to slow down. Today, at 59, Ivonoffski is part of a generation that has been critical about many of St. John’s career choices, including her CD covers and performance repertoire, which is filled with flashy, fantastically difficult, showstopping pieces. But Ivonoffski understands. “You have to do all the fireworks pieces early on in your career and then once the public buys you as a virtuoso, you can play anything you want.” Still, he hopes that someday she’ll relent on Brahms: “When she realizes there’s more to sex than just passion, then she’ll rethink Brahms.”
While some are still uncomfortable with St. John’s sexy presentation, she’s winning over fans in the classical world who welcome her boundary-breaking exploits.
“Classical music has come to be considered less rarefied and elitist. What the Lara St. Johns of the world are doing is bashing down those preconceptions,” says John Sterne, former executive director of Orchestra London Canada, who invited St. John to play with her hometown orchestra for its season opening concert last fall. And what does Sterne think of her music? “Let’s just say, by the time you finish listening to Gypsy, you’re definitely reaching for a pack of cigarettes.”