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Lara St. John’s She, Her, Hers

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



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


Lara St. John by Stacy Kendrick

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.

Composers of "She, Her, Hers"

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 by JR Sheetz.jpg

sM | You’ve extensively documented your experience of abuse at the Curtis Institute extensively. These accounts document and vindicate your experience but also as an open letter to the industry that this does happen. How do you think this industry inherently struggles with protecting vulnerable populations from predatory behaviour?

LS ─  You have to be young when you start instruments like the violin, piano, or cello; I was two and a half. Children are told to obey their teacher no matter what, and that dynamic attracts people who enjoy being abusive.

Institutions like to make gods out of men. I was 14 when my abuse happened at Curtis; my teacher was 78. After a lot of mental and physical abuse, it eventually escalated to rape. When I got myself out, the administration laughed at me because he had been at Curtis for many years. But this keeps happening elsewhere. I call it “predator teacher whack-a-mole.”: somebody will get caught and then just start teaching at another school. Why aren’t there background checks? Instead, institutions glorify these men and allow them to feel that they have a right to be abusive.

The only answer is to stop putting men’s art above women’s lives. One girl I spoke to said she had been made to feel like a perk of the man’s job, like a parking space or a pension. After my article about Curtis in 2019, hundreds more have written to say “it happened to me too” at different schools. Many of them don’t play anymore; some don’t even listen to music. This god-making has to stop.

Lara St. John

sM | We frequently turn to music as a source of healing from trauma of all varieties—but for musicians whose trauma arises from their musical education, this solace is relatively contaminated. What is your advice to musicians with similar experiences to yours on how to find healing in music again?

LS ─ My saving grace has been loving music as a whole, not just the very insular classical world. The music I learned in those few traumatic years is not something I want to play or hear, but I started so young that music was ingrained in me, and I can still see its value. I’m not going to sit down and listen to the Brahms Violin Concerto, but I certainly will sit down and listen to Rhiannon Giddens. It’s healing for me is to hear how people express themselves so miraculously by doing things differently than what I grew up with.


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