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Lara St. John’s She, Her, Hers

The Celebrated Violinist on Fighting Classical Music’s Toxic Background.


MAR 16, 2023 | ISSUE 10

Lara St. John by Stacy Kendrick
Composers of "She, Her, Hers"
Lara St. John by JR Sheetz.jpg

Canadian-born violinist Lara St. John is a passionate champion of music that challenges the norm. With her 1779 Guadagnini violin in hand, she has appeared at concert halls worldwide, been invested into the Order of Canada, and recently launched her album of solo violin music by women composers, She, Her, Hers.

For all her success, St. John is also all too familiar with classical music’s darker sides. Her 2019 exposé about the abuse she suffered at the Curtis Institute of Music sent shockwaves through the classical music world and continues to embolden victims to tell their stories and challenge institutional powers. St. John joined smART Magazine from New York for a frank discussion tackling some of classical music’s most intractable problems: rampant protection of predators, misogynistic and white-centred repertoire programming, and how to find healing in a marred musical world.

sM | How did She, Her, Hers go from something in the back of your mind, to recording 17 pieces by 12 composers?

LS ─ It was very serendipitous. Small things just kept happening that, little by little, added up to this album. During COVID lockdowns, a closed border separated me from the pianist I usually work with, so I was playing music for solo violin. I always play solo works by Bach, Bartók, or Ysaÿe, but I started thinking, “Why have I heard about the Eckhardt-Gramatté Caprices all my life, but never played them?” Then things started to fall into place.

Adah Kaplan happened to write to me around this time; she said she was 14 and had written a piece for violin that was too hard for her to play, so she wondered if I could record it. Melissa Dunphy had given me the piece Kommós when we first met. I’ve known Valerie Coleman for probably 15 years, and she had a beautiful solo flute piece that I arranged for solo violin. Jesse Montgomery had just finished a second Rhapsody.

Suddenly, without trying much, I had an album to record. Thanks to COVID, my sound engineer Laura De Rover and I found a beautiful empty room in Manhattan to record in. We had so much time; it was a very luxurious recording session.

sM | What were your other stylistic and demographic considerations when compiling this list of composers?

LS ─ The composers on the album are from fairly diverse backgrounds, but it was a little bit by happenstance because I happened to already know several of the composers. I’ve known Valerie Coleman for years, and I went to a yoga retreat with Jesse Montgomery, and I just liked the music of some of the others. In a way, I’m glad that the album’s diversity wasn’t really intentional because it means that the women are getting out there and getting known, and within that group, it’s not just a bunch of white girls.

sM | How can the industry further contribute to disrupting what you’ve called the “composition brotherhood” and championing female composers in a deliberate way?

LS ─ There have been some baby steps, but for a very long time, almost 100% of concert repertoire has been by male composers. It’s only just now beginning to change, but I think there’s a lot of tokenism going on right now for female composers. A program will have a very small five-minute piece by a woman, and then they’ll do a Prokofiev concerto and a Beethoven symphony. That’s better than nothing, but it’s a problem.

I also don’t think it’s ever really been encouraged for women to be composers. Even famous ones, like Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, Joan Tower, or Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, all face a stupid fallacy rooted in misogyny, that “women can’t write classical music.”

It’s also a problem in performance; orchestra personnel are still subject to gendered stereotypes about who should play what instrument, and there are still so few women leading large orchestras or even sections within those orchestras.

So much of all of this comes down to artistic administrators and music directors. When you have people who think that only Beethoven or Brams is worthwhile to program or listen to, then nobody else is going to get a chance. Period. That’s our problem.

Lara St. John