Music review: Violinist Lara St. John with the New West Symphony

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The Los Angeles Philharmonic wasn’t the only orchestra over the weekend to introduce a fancifully programmatic concerto by a composer born in 1968. In downtown, it was Richard Dubugnon’s “Battlefield” for the pianists Katia and Marielle Labèque. The New West Symphony’s contribution was the first local performance of Matthew Hindson’s Violin Concerto No. 1, “Australian Postcards.”

The New West program, which I heard Sunday afternoon at Barnum Hall in Santa Monica, was meant to be notable also because it was the first time a woman -- Sarah Ioannides -- conducted the orchestra founded in Thousand Oaks in 1995, But the woman who got all the attention for all the right, if curious, reasons was a Canadian violin soloist who has a reputation for eccentricity.

Lara St. John happens to be a volcanic violinist with a huge, fabulous tone that pours out of her like molten lava. She has technique to burn and plays at a constant high heat. She is uninhibited, sometimes strikingly so.

And St. John has a look. She wore a slinky many-hued, multi-textured green gown, possibly swamp inspired, which boldly emphasized her figure and her highly physically playing. She stood not in front of the orchestra but within it, and she bowed with little enough restraint to be a danger to other players. She appeared less a distraction to them than an energizer. She is the closest equivalent to a Janis Joplin on the current classical concert scene.


The concerto, which was written in 2000, is a showpiece. A prominent figure and power broker on the Australian music scene, Hindson meant his three movements to be musical postcards of his homeland, supplying Australia with a conventional “three places” symphonic triptych as so many other composers have done for their countries.

First, a wind turbine on Kooragang Island roars away, offering Hindson a chance to stir up a lot of instrumental dust, and he does so with appealing relish. “Westaway” is pastoral and moody, representing a village in Tasmania where natural beauty and poverty are found. “Grand Final Day” is a speedy, spirited spectacle of sport.

Hindson’s musical descriptions are straightforward and sometimes clever. But his talent here is for a contagious pop sensibility that occasionally takes over the concerto. Were he to turn to scoring for Hollywood, I think things would look up at the movies.

The violin writing is extravagant, and St. John is even more extravagant. She too has her pop side, the Joplin thing, and when the concerto wants rock, she rocks. She can also turn smolderingly sensual. She can sound like a Russian virtuoso out to flabbergast.

But what makes her unique is the way she puts everything together. She has utter command of the material and the instrument. And she has seemingly utter spontaneity, lost in the score but at the same the essence of its vitality. St. John has produced a very effective recording of “Australian Postcards” on her own label, Ancalagon, with Ioannides conducting the Royal Philharmonic. With New West, Ionnides, who is from Australia and is music director of the Spartanburg Philharmonic in South Carolina, brought out similar detail and spark.

But she made a mistake programming Debussy’s “La Mer” a walk from the sea and also a short intermission after “Australian Postcards.” Debussy was not, like Hindson, a literalist. Rather he used uncannily visceral musical suggestion for the salty sea air, the waves at play or the dappled shore light, all of which I experienced on the way to the auditorium and none inside. Ioannides emphasized bright sounds and fussy phrasing.

She then talked down to the audience. Presuming that we in the city where Stravinsky lived the longest feared the “Firebird,” she attempted to sell his century-old music, which is like telling Parisian art lovers to keep calm, Picasso’s early paintings won’t freak you out. Her interpretation was hard-edged, heavily accented, musical hard-sell. Although this can be a very good orchestra in quite varied repertory under its music director, Boris Brott, its Stravinsky for Ioannides was tense and uncomfortable.


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