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INTERVIEW | Lara St. John Talks About Her 21C Music Festival Concerts And Women In Classical Music

By Anya Wassenberg on December 1, 2023

Lara St. John (Photo: J. Farley)
Lara St. John (Photo: J. Farley)

Violinist Lara St. John will be back in Toronto for the RCM’s 21C Music Festival in January for a couple of engagements. She’ll be performing in Fazil Say’s concert of his own original pieces, as well as headlining her own concert.

Lara, with brother and fellow violinist Scott St. John, Winona Zelenka (cello) and Barry Schiffman (viola), will be performing a piano quintet by Say titled The Moving Mansion, op. 72c, Hommage à Atatürk on January 19, and her own concert of solo violin works takes place January 20.

Lara St. John

As a performer, Lara St. John’s career has taken her from Seattle to Strasbourg, the Akbank Chamber Orchestra in Turkey to Australia, from South America to Japan and China, and pretty much all points in between. She’s performed on the world’s finest concert halls, including recitals in New York, Boston, San Francisco, Ravinia, Wolf Trap, Washington, D.C., Prague, Berlin, Toronto, Montreal, Bogotá, Lima and the Forbidden City.

Lara has long been known as a proponent of new works, and has commissioned or premiered pieces by Matthew Hindson, Martin Kennedy, John Corigliano, Gene Pritsker, Serouj Kradjian, Tarik O’Regan and John Psathas, among others.

After founding her own label Ancalagon in 199, she went on to produce a string of well received and best-selling albums, including her Bach: The Six Sonatas & Partitas for Violin Solo (best-selling double album on iTunes in 2007), and the JUNO Award-winning Mozart recording with The Knights in 2011.

Lara St. John (Photo: Clive Barda)
Lara St. John (Photo: Clive Barda)

The Interview

At her own concert for the 21C Music Festival on January 20, Lara will be drawing from her most recent release, 2022’s ♀She/Her/Hers. It puts the spotlight on women composers, featuring 17 pieces by 12 artists.

♀She/Her/Hers includes work by Milica Paranosic; Jessica Meyer; Gabriela Lena Frank; Adah Kaplan; Valerie Coleman; Laurie Anderson; Melissa Dunphy; Sophie-Carmen Eckhardt Gramatté; Micheline Coulombe St. Marcoux; Jessie Montgomery; Ana Sokolović; and Laura de Rover. One or two, such as Laurie Anderson and Ana Sokolović, already have a public profile. Still, the list of neglected women composers is still very long.

“It was a little bit of a pandemic project,” she explains. The forced downtime of the lockdowns gave her the time to explore what she was always curious about. Lara began listening to women composers, and others who bucked the overwhelming majority of white men.

She was also able to use a mahogany-lined salon in the historical Atterbury House in Manhattan, and it led to a recording project focusing on works for solo violin written by women.

Some of the pieces were written for Lara, and others she simply connected with. In the case of Québécoise composer Micheline Coulombe St. Marcoux, Lara admired not only her work, but what it must have taken to become a composer as a woman in the 1970s.

“I’ve been a fan of Valerie Coleman for years,” she adds. Coleman is extremely busy, so Lara took a piece of hers for flute and plays it on the violin.

Finding new music is always a goal. “I’m always on the lookout for more stuff.”

New work can also mean rediscovered work, however. “Women have been writing since the 17th, 18th centuries,” she says. “A lot of stuff got lost because nobody cared about it.”

Lara St. John performs Confronting the Sky by Jessica Meyer:

She is encouraged by the fact that many of the women whose work is represented on the album are now doing well. Jessie Montgomery is now the Mead Composer-in-Residence of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and Gabriela Lena Frank’s El último sueño de Frida y Diego became the first Spanish language production for the San Franciso Opera. It was also the first work the company has produced that was written by a woman of colour.

If her album can raise their profiles even a little, it will have been worth the effort. “Any little thing that can help these folks is fantastic.”

The selections for the concert were made based on the audience appeal of the pieces.

“I’m doing at least one piece by each composer,” she says. “A lot of these are also Canadian premieres,” she adds. “And for fun a little bit of old J.S. Bach.”

A Bombshell Leads To A Film

The album speaks to a cause that’s close to Lara. In 2019, her performing career was briefly overshadowed when she told reporters at The Philadelphia Inquirer about the abuse and sexual assault she’d experienced by a professor at The Curtis Institute of Music as a young student. She’d been 14 at the time, and part of her story was the lengths the prestigious music school went to sweep it under the rug.

When the article came out, many women wrote to her with stories of similar experiences, and the idea of a documentary film was born. “I thought their stories should be told.”

Lara traveled across the US to gather their testimonies, including a former New York music critic who found she had to stop writing about the genre because she’d simply learned too many negative stories about too many of its prominent figures.

Along with her music, Lara has been editing videos for about 15 years, as she tells it. The documentary is nearing completion. “I’ve just been in rough cut consultations,” she says. “It’ll definitely be out in 2024.”

Often shooting alone with her camera and the subject, she was able to get their true stories. “It’s about speaking from within, and from the soul,” she says. “If we stay quiet, nothing gets done.”

Laurie Anderson’s Statue of Liberty arr. for violin by Lara St. John:

Women In Classical Music

The inclusion of women into the world of classical music at the professional level has been a long, slow process, but it does seem to be accelerating lately.

“If you think about it, 50 years ago there were pretty much no women in orchestras,” she says. But, she points out, despite any recent inroads, women are still largely absent from any positions of authority, responsibility or power, such as first chairs or orchestra leaders, and conductors.

“It still doesn’t seem to be accepted for any women to be in positions of power,” she says. “Composing is where I’ve seen the most change.”

As a voter for the Grammy Awards, Lara says the process is somewhat depressing for someone looking for evidence of representation. “I’ve been a little bit crushed every year.”

She notes that innovations like blind auditions can help to combat innate prejudices. But, there’s a limit to their efficacy. “Women tend not to be hired when they come out from behind the screen.”

She points to people like the late Yuri Temirkanov, a celebrated conductor who died recently. In 2012, he famously said in an interview that women shouldn’t be conductors because it was “counter to nature.” He went on to say that women, “should be beautiful, likeable, attractive. Musicians will look at her and be distracted from the music!”

“You still see it all the time,” she says. “At the moment, I think there’s a lot of tokenism.”

Fighting For Change

When sexual abuse is allowed to go unchecked, women are simply harassed out of the profession. “The male students had a great time, and they got to learn.”

Talking about it openly and pointing fingers comes at a cost. “I didn’t go public for 37 years,” Lara points out. She went to the institution with her story, “and they laughed at me,” she says. “If I did this when I was 20, there would have been no question, I would have been raked over the coals by Curtis’ lawyers, and I wouldn’t have had a career.”

She needed to know she could survive before taking the step. “My whole life has been about survival,” she says. “For younger people, they just can’t.”

What’s the solution? First, institutions need to be more vigilant, and take action on complaints instead of sweeping it under the rug for the sake of reputation. She cites as a golden standard the Amsterdam Conservatory, who brought in an external consultant, and terminated three teachers for sexual misconduct.

Fundamentally, the atmosphere of classical music education encourages a kind of master/student relationship that is ripe for exploitation. “The deification just has to stop,” she says.

“Just because you are pretty good at playing a box with catgut on it, does not make you the Dalai Lama.”

  • Lara will be performing with Fazil Say on January 19, and headlining her own concert on January 20. Information and tickets about Lara St. John and the 21C Music Festival available [HERE].

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