May 9, 2016 by TOM HUIZENGA • Violinist Lara St. John has attitude in spades. It's in the sound of her playing and in the arc of her career.
Her first album cover sparked controversy, prompting many classical-music observers to wonder about her motivations until they heard the passionate Bach performances that accompanied it. Willing to take risks, St. John was among the first to start her own record label in the 1990s. It's allowed her to call the shots on her recorded repertoire, which has been satisfyingly broad, from Piazzolla to polkas to Mozart.
St. John's recent album Shiksa - recorded with pianist Matt Herskowitz, who joins her for this Tiny Desk concert - collects new arrangements of old tunes from Armenia, Romania and the Jewish diaspora.
The two know how to start off a show. The incendiary "Czardashian Rhapsody" mashes up two Hungarian tunes with some extra hot sauce. St. John's fiddle is at turns coy and cocky, racy, raw and just plain outrageous. Herskowitz dispatches his considerably hefty role with equal abandon. Her hair flying as if she were a glam-rock guitarist, St. John nails the big rock 'n' roll ending.
The two slow it all down for "Sari Siroun Yar," a bittersweet Armenian troubadour song that opens with pearly, Asian-colored trills from Herskowitz and some sleight-of-hand magic from St. John. Bowing across the fingerboard, she captures the muted, breathy sound of the duduk, Armenia's ancient double-reed instrument.
The barnstorming grit is back for a final round of pyrotechnics in the "Oltenian Hora." The piece plays off a catalog of violin tricks, St. John explains, practiced by traditional Romanian gypsy fiddlers. After rapid-fire whistles, bird calls and slithery harmonics, all in a variety of off-kilter rhythms, St. John ratchets up the intensity. Practically brawling with her instrument, she saws away faster and faster, leaving her, and many of us in the room, breathless.
"Shiksa" is available now
"Czardashian Rhapsody" (arr. Martin Kennedy)
"Sari Siroun Yar" (arr. Serouj Kradjian)
"Oltenian Hora" (arr. Lara St. John)
Producers: Tom Huizenga, Niki Walker; Audio Engineer: Josh Rogosin; Videographers: Niki Walker, Kara Frame, Brandon Chew; Production Assistant: Jackson Sinnenberg; Photo: Kara Frame/NPR.