New Classical Tracks: Lara St. John, 'Shiksa'
Lara St. John Shiksa (Ancalagon Records)
Maybe you have your own collection of coins, stamps, movies or dolls? These are among the top 10 things people collect. Canadian violinist Lara St. John has been building her own collection over the past few years. It's a collection of music from Eastern Europe which she's now compiled into a recording titled Shiksa.
"I first went to Hungary when it was still behind the Iron Curtain," Lara says. "I would have been about 11 years old and went back when I was 12 and 13 years old. And the fact that music just oozes out of every window there and every person there and there's so much knowledge about not only classical music but also their own folk tunes and gypsy music it's so fascinating. And I remember thinking, 'I wonder if I was adopted by a Canadian family and this is where I'm really from?'"
After graduating from the Curtis Institute, Lara relocated to the Soviet Union for a year. "I met a lot of Armenians there, a lot of Georgians, so I added, kind of, the Caucuses," Lara recalls. "I ended up going to Georgia and Armenia and even Kazakhstan and I don't know, I'm kind of a bit of a sponge, so I was just fascinated by everybody."
And those in other cultures are pretty fascinated by Lara St. John. "Basically, in a lot of places in the world, I just really stick out like a sore thumb," she laughs. "So I figured, well, I might as well own it. I'm just over six foot, so with shoes I'm six-one, six-two, and in a lot of cultures, they've never seen such a giant female person."
Lara makes her point with the title of this new recording. "It is called Shiksa, and 'shiksa' is Yiddish for a non-Jewish girl or woman," Lara explains. "And actually on the cover, I have nine different titles, all of them meaning more or less the same thing in their respective languages, because all of those cultures are represented musically on the album. So I wanted to kind of put what they would call me since it's sort of odd that it's the sort of giant, blonde shiksa who sort of pulled all these things together and created an album."
Several pieces on this collection have been reimagined by other composers at the request of Lara and her friend and colleague, pianist Matt Herskowitz. The recording opens with an outrageous arrangement of the Hungarian Csárdás by Martin Kennedy. "The Czardashian Rhapsody, which has nothing to do with buxom California families," Lara teases, "is actually a sort of portmanteau of Hungarian Rhapsody, because Martin uses the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, and Csárdás, so we ended up calling it the 'Czardashian Rhapsody.' He blends the two in a very witty way, and the whole piece is a new showpiece for violin, and it's completely over the top. At one point he has a maestoso ridiculoso at the end in the score. He's a very funny guy, so when I wanted something as well known as Czardas, I figured he'd be able to do it really well."
The Czardashian Rhapsody was also turned into a very imaginative video where Lara found herself driving around with a hand-me-down harmonium in the back of a 1949 Chevy pickup truck. You can watch that below, along with another video for a Romanian dulcimer tune arranged by pianist Matt Kerskowitz. "And when we were recording it, I thought, this sounds like a Romanian version of a Wild-West saloon," Lara says. "And that inspired the video, which was my biggest production to date; I do all the post production on my videos. So I hired three dancers who did a sort of can-can, line-dancing kind of thing to it and also four stunt fighters who you know … it's got a little story to it, they're playing cards, somebody cheats and then it sort of turns into a sort of barroom brawl and we keep playing, the dancers keep dancing and personally, I think it's hilarious."
When Lara met Serouj Kradjian eight years ago, they made an immediate connection over a song from his Armenian homeland. "It's called Sari Siroun Yar, it's an Armenian troubadour song," Lara says. "[Kradjian] was born in Lebanon which … obviously it's not all that different today, but at the time, when he was young and growing up there, there was a big civil war happening. There's a huge Armenian diaspora that ended up in Lebanon, so his family and Armenian friends would sing this at the dinner table to take themselves back to their ancestral homeland and get a break from everything going on outside. And strangely enough, when I first went to Armenia, it was the first song I heard. I heard it done a cappella, actually, at a kind of restaurant of all things. And I just thought it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever heard."
Songs from Armenia, Palestine, the Jewish Diaspora, Russia, Macedonia, Serbia, Greece, Romania, and Hungary … some are newly imagined, others are improvised, but they all come from tunes that this six-foot blonde "shiksa" has known and loved for years.