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Spotlight on: re: Bach by Lara St. John

Johann Sebastian Bach (composer); Lara St. John (soloist); re: Bach

Sex sells, and I suppose it was time that someone in the classical music industry figured that out. Female violinists generally get the focus of this attention, so it should have been no surprise when Lara St. John appeared wearing only her violin on the cover of her debut album Bach: Works for Violin Solo.

Ever since, she has been the Vargas girl of unconventional violin work, a reputation she has worked to nurture with each successive disc (and cover photo -- she looks positively orgasmic on Bach: The Concerto Album, at right). Never has Bach been so well-represented by pulchritude, and the six-foot, self-proclaimed "Junoesque" violinist is unabashed in her defense of it.

But while her appearance may sell an album or two, her talent is what will get it played continually, and Lara St. John is certainly proficient in that department. She also seems to be specializing in one composer -- not a common practice -- as three of her four albums (including this one) focus on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, with the previous two consisting of energetic, if pretty straightforward, interpretations.

Now St. John has teamed up with producer Magnus Fiennes for her third foray into the work of J.S. (he and I are like this, so I can call him "J.S.") with re: Bach, which, as the e-themed title implies, attempts to bring Baroque into the modern age. First, and I think most interesting, is that most of the tracks were not composed for the violin, instantly bringing a new sound to old works. In addition, the sounds St. John, Fiennes, and arranger Brian Gascoigne come up with circle the globe -- pulling from jazz, pop, and world music to produce something that sheds new light on music that, perhaps, has become too familiar and needs a kick. Particularly when it comes to bringing Bach to the attention of a younger generation whose familiarity with the master is likely to have peaked with hearing "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" blaring from their cell phones.

"Largo" starts the experience out gently and you barely notice the low synthesizer sound underlying St. John's violin melody. It's not really until the electronic bass line that you realize that you're in another dimension entirely. And just when you get settled into your "electronic classical" mode, on comes "Tocceilidh," transporting you into Celtic territory. "Goldberg2" takes one of the Variations that made Glenn Gould famous and turns it into South African kwaito.

"Duetto" is much more traditional in comparison, with only the double violin sound bringing it out of what would normally be expected. But with "Echo" we're back into familiar territory (for this album) with the tribal percussion and the wurlitzer making this unlike anything Bach could have imagined.

"The Sicilian" enters Pure Moods territory with its haunting melodies and its running time peppered with whispers and voices straight out of Guy de Maupassant's gothic works. "Was it a vision? Or a waking dream?" the voice says and, well, I can't answer him. But if you're in the right mood, it works. "Bombay Minor" is relatively stripped down, with only Trilok Gurtu's tabla providing a rhythm base for St. John's melody.

Phil Spector would be proud as every possible aural space in "Recit" is filled with sound. The instruments used here include electric guitar, electric bass, percussion, vocal effects, pedal steel guitar, alto flute, and marimba. It's one of the most ambitious tracks on re: Bach and also the longest, running over five minutes.

The 47-second "Aria," on the other hand, with only a simple cello accompaniment, is palate-cleansing, like a mild sorbet between courses. "Double" is a personal favorite with Phil Todd soloing on flute and John Themis offering both a Mexican sound on his guitar and the "wakka wakka" sound so familiar from 1970s exploitation movie soundtracks. "Gigue" has a Middle Eastern flavor and "Ten Fifty Two" adds international percussion to the main line, preparing us -- if such can be said -- for the final tune.

"BADinerie" would be entirely at home on a club dance floor with its electronic multilayered backbeats, sound effects, and rhythmic keyboard play. It's my favorite track (I wish it were longer) and is an excellent final touch to an album that does its best to surprise.

Purists may be offended by re: Bach (especially since the title, when said aloud, sounds like a sneaker ad) but I thoroughly enjoyed having my mind opened to a new way of appreciating the works of Johann Sebastian Bach -- especially those with which I was already familiar -- both by filtering them through Gascoigne's arrangement for St. John's considerable violin skills and through Fiennes' modern/international sensibility. I think the composer himself would have approved, and possibly would have gawked a little as well.

(But don't just take my word for it. Listen to Lara St. John's phenomenal new album online!)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2003. Reprinted with permission.

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