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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Concert Review: Dead Man's Party

Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz rock The Crypt Sessions.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Underground music: Matt Herskowitz and Lara St. John entombed.
Photo by Andrew Ousley for The Crypt Sessions.
At last night's installment of The Crypt Sessions, the esteemed series of chamber music and concert recitals that takes place in the sepulchre of the Church of the Intercession at W. 155th St. and Broadway, host (and curator) Andrew Ousley staked the claim that the Canadian violinist Lara St. John was a "force of nature." The violinist, in concert with her performing partner Matthew Herskowitz, was offering something special in the house of the dead. The program was Lavuta an hourlong mixtape of fiddle tunes and folk-inspired music from Eastern Europe, covering a vast triangle of land from Moscow to Jerusalem to Budapest. 

The sound of the violin from behind what used to be the Iron Curtain is smirked at in Western culture: the province of fiddling restaurant violinists or stereotypes of the Roma people. And yet in Ms. St. John's strong, capable hands. one was reminded of the strength and power of this instrument, used to celebrate weddings, mourn the dead and entertain millions in an era before the Xbox. This program was inspired by the violinist's own journeys: she lived in Moscow before the Politburo fell and has roamed these countries, soaking up the music and with the help of a slew of contemporary composers, repurposing it for this evening's recital.

The concert opened with Čoček, a Macedonian piece by the composer Milaca PAranosic. It started with Mr. Herskowitz playing bass notes from inside the piano, introducing the violin with a rhythmic pulse that sounded decidedly minimalist. When Ms. St. John fully entered, he sat down and the two raced into the melody, setting much of the tone for the pell-mell evening that followed. It was followed by Ah Ya Zahn, a celebratory song from Lebanon by John Kameel Farah,

High-speed minor key runs and fleet stringwork followeed in the gorgeous Ca La Breaza, a traditional Transylvanian tune. Next was Mr. Herskowitz' own playful, tongue-in-cheek arrangement of the Hava Nagila. Nagilara bent this popular bar mitzvah ditty into twenty different contortions, from fast to slow, from lilting to comic, mining the tune for emotional depths that aren't usually heard at familial celebrations.

Ms. St. John then introduced the tune Sari Siroun Yar with the tale of her epic trip across what used to be the Soviet Union. She recounted the problems in getting out of Moscow right before the fall of Communism, when things were uncertain and everyone was on edge. She talked about a drive through the dark mountain roads of the Caucasus, an isolated, rocky place, all the way to the Black Sea country of Armenia. This song was sad, mournful and playful and was paired with "Moscow" by Gene Pritsker from that composer's Russian Evenings Suite.

The last two works on the program had the most impressive technical fireworks. First, Ms. St. John and Mr. Herskowitz played Naftule, a klezmer tune. This is the music of the Ashkenazi Jews, and the soul of their struggle came through, amplified by the intensity of the crypt setting. These concerts are unusual in and of themselves but sometimes the choice of location has a tendency to amplify the emotional content of the works being performed.

The finale was a mash-up: not of electronic creation but by a composer's hand. "Czardashian Rhapsody" is the creation of Martin Kennedy, a mad conflation of the evergreen Vittorio Monti violin tune Czardas and Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Mr. Kennedy had noticed that the two pieces had much in common, and in combining them created a dazzling showpiece for both players. As the violin keened and the piano banged, thundered, whimpered and roared, one felt a stirring in the churchyard. This was music, indeed to wake the dead.

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