The next big thing
Virtuoso violinist Lara St. John brings beauty and skill to Paradise Performing Arts Center
Some people have all the luck: beauty, brains, awe-inspiring talent. Canadian-born violinist Lara St. John is one of those people.
Having picked up the violin at age 2, St. John was soloing with an orchestra by age 5 and made her European debut with the Gulbenkian Orchestra of Lisbon five years later. She went on to win major competitions, live with Gypsies in the former Soviet Union when she was 16, perform with a number of prominent American and international symphonies, and tour the world as a concert musician.
Now in her late-20s, St. John has been tagged as a rising star even though the press tends to treat her somewhat like the Anna Kournikova of classical music. This is due not only to her glamorous looks, but also her wonderful debut album, Bach Works for Violin Solo, which featured her nude on the cover (though tastefully shielded by a Stradivarius violin). The acclaimed album has sold over 40,000 copies. Although her sexy cover stirred a minor tempest in the classical world, St. John humbled critics with solid musical instincts, sure intonation and virtuoso technique. The Chicago Tribune lauded her “irresistible vitality” and The New Yorker called her a “technically adept, terrifically expressive talent.”
Speaking from her Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan, where she spends around four months of the year when not touring, St. John came across as very down-to-earth. Her rigorous tour schedule brings her to the Performing Arts Center in Paradise on Jan. 17, where she plans to perform “Beethoven, some Tchaikovsky, Chopin, a lot of really fun stuff,” she says, “basically whatever we feel like.”
For the Paradise concert, St. John will be playing a stunning 1779 “Salabue” Guadagnini violin with a unique history. Originally made for Count Salabue in Turin, it was purchased in the 1920s for a young boy in California who suddenly died. The boy’s grieving father buried the instrument with his son, but 50 years later—so the story goes—it was dug up in perfect shape. “Actually, I just found out [from a relative of the boy’s] that it was only interred for like three weeks,” St. John said. “You know how rumors get started. … Still, I thought it was a beautiful story.”
St. John’s live performances have been called everything from “seductive” to “incendiary,” and she is widely known for her energetic, imaginative, even shocking interpretations of classic composers.
“Somehow energy comes from energy,” she explains. “The more I do, the more energy I find. I never worry about [motivation for] performing. Sometimes I worry about how rude I am to customs people.” She laughs lightly. “I don’t like flying much.”
While St. John has been pegged as a youthful savior for classical music, she really just wants the average person to hear some of the world’s greatest music apart from “all this sound, noise, fury and communication we have today.
“Purists would kill me, but I’ve got three MTV-style videos out there that play on arts channels. … I think films and soundtracks, other visual mediums are ways to get this stuff across as long as the music is credited properly. Some films don’t credit the composers, which I find astonishing.”
Considering her history as a child prodigy raised by parents with no music background ("My dad loved Elvis,” she notes), St. John is an anomaly. She says that she believes innate musical ability does exist—even though the idea has gotten her into heated arguments.
“When it comes to string playing, like violin, cello—you necessarily have to start at a young age. In a way, it’s kind of an athletic thing we do. It has to be instilled as you’re growing. [But] I do think people are born with it—my own brother does what I do, and we’re sort of equal in our ears and memory, though he disagrees with me. It’s kind of like an animal that is colorblind. How do you describe color? That’s how I describe how I hear things to people who don’t hear them the same way.”
St. John says that even though she skipped high school and spent her youth performing, she doesn’t feel as if she missed out. “At a lot of points I thought about doing something else, but although it sounds trite, I couldn’t live without the music.”
What can she live without? Try the Lord of the Rings films—even though she has read the Tolkien novel series over 15 times.
“You’re going to laugh, but I kind of officially boycotted the films. I’ve read the books so many times that I didn’t feel as though any film would be better than my imagination. I know [director] Peter Jackson probably did the best possible job, but nothing’s good enough." She laughs. "I just want to keep my Middle Earth the way it is."